Sequencing, Taekwondo and Autism

My seven-year-old son with autism used to get confused when it came to sequencing. That was 3 years ago; he now is a pro at it. Well, a second-degree red belt pro that is. Yes, Taekwondo has done wonders for his ability to learn sequencing. It also helps with focus, attention, respect, community, self-defense, and self-esteem.  So if you’re not familiar with the practice of Taekwondo and why it helps kids on the spectrum with sequencing, let me explain how.

When students of Taekwondo earn their belt colors/testing, they must master the Taekwondo forms/patterns called Taegeuk for that belt level. There are eight Taegeuk (forms) in the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) that students learn and perform at testing for a color belt. This shows that the student can display their proficiency in individual techniques and the ability to perform techniques in a logical sequence.  The Taegeuk patterns are all intended to simulate multiple attacks coming at the student from all sides. Each Taegeuk has 18 techniques/steps to master.  The Taegeuk patterns become progressively more complex, and introduce more advanced techniques the higher you go.  By the time the student reaches black belt, they will have learned 8 Taegeuk forms, and must demonstrate a mastery of each in sequence for their black belt test. This is the goal of my seven-year-old with autism.

When my son began taking Taekwondo classes at age 5, I thought that perhaps this was an outlet for him to expend energy, learn to focus and pay attention to his master, and perhaps boost his self-esteem. Now keep in mind this studio is for neuro-typical kids and adults. My son is expected to behave, focus and attend just like all the other kids. The first few months were challenging and I thought that maybe we’ll be lucky if he gets to the next level after white belt (first belt), which is yellow belt. When I witnessed a yellow belt class practicing the first Taegeuk form and saw the 18 techniques taught in sequence, I thought that would put my son over the edge and would be the end of Taekwondo for him. Nope! Again, my son continues to amaze me with his perseverance, tenacity and just plain stubbornness.

He not only learned all 18 techniques in the proper sequence, he overcame his fears and did his first board breaking. Granted, he covered his ears due to the loud snap of the board, but he was only using his leg/foot to break the board, not his hands. Yet. Fast forward to a few more belt testings later, and he must now do the previous three Taegeuk forms, plus the new fourth one. Yep, he learned them with ease. He has mastered sequencing.

Now the board breaking technique for this belt test is knife hand strike, where he must break the board using one of his hands. I thought, how in the world is he going to get through this? He can’t cover both his ears AND break the board at the same time! Well, my son’s Taekwondo master is awesome. He worked with my son on this technique by using x-ray film sheets (that make loud sounds when hit) first. Slowly, he encouraged him in class to try the x-ray sheet with his knife hand strike while the other students were working out.

So when it came to testing and he had to stand up in front of the entire class and their parents to do this technique without covering his ears, it was effortless. He did it! And miraculously, his fear of the loud sound the board breaking makes was vanquished. Every belt test after that, he looked forward to board breaks with excitement and performed them without anxiety. Talk about a self-esteem booster!

We are 2 1/2 years into our son’s Taekwondo journey to black belt. Last week he tested for second degree red belt and passed his 7th Taegeuk form with flying colors. To date, he has learned seven forms with 18 techniques within each one! His board breaking technique was jump back spinning kick. Yes, a sequence again! And he mastered it so well, he broke the board on his first attempt. I can’t be more proud of his accomplishments in earning his Taekwondo belts. Next May (6 months) he will hopefully be ready for his black belt test.  My son, the black belt.  Oh, and he will have overcome his autism disability to obtain it. I’m already celebrating!

Update Nov. 2011 – my son the black belt!

 

If you live in the Santa Clarita Valley, in Southern California, I highly recommend the Tae Ryong Taekwondo Studio taught by Sr. Master Chad Moore. He is a sixth degree DAN black belt and a wonderful instructor. He has classes for all levels/abilities for children and adults. His website is www.taeryong.net.

Advertisements

Ho, Ho, Oh No!

If I were to take a poll of people and children (yes, I know, they are considered people too!) that have anxiety around costumed characters, it would be heavily weighted to more have issues than not.  I never knew about this fear until I met my sister-in-law and at first I laughed about it.  A grown adult afraid of costumed characters? I wasn’t being mean, just incredulous. I’ve always loved sitting on Santa’s lap, watching a clown perform or posing with Mickey Mouse for a photo. After all, we all know that there is a real person inside, right?

Well, apparently rational thoughts vanish from the head when someone with a costume character phobia gets within 10 feet of a costumed character. For the sake of this article, let’s coin the term “costumephobia”.  When my son with autism was 2 years old, I soon realized another person with costumephonia had entered my life. Little did I know that when we held him in our arms and posed with Goofy at Disneyland, he was having anxiety about it. When I sat him on Santa’s lap, he screamed and I couldn’t understand why. Clowns make him run frantically in the opposite direction and don’t even try to get him near that giant rat named Chuck E. Cheese!

Now that I have a better understanding of his phobia, I steer clear of any costumed character we come across. When we are at Disneyland, we steer the stroller in the opposite direction of a character. One time we didn’t notice the costume character Sulley from Monster’s Inc up ahead. (I know, he’s in a 8′ neon blue costume and we missed it!) Well, my son saw him and jumped out of the stroller (yes, he unbuckled it and fled a moving vehicle!) and took off in the opposite direction.

Today, our son with autism is old enough now to understand that a real person is inside the costume and that they won’t try to harm him. He can stand at a distance and observe them, but still will not willingly greet Santa. Last year at my husband’s office holiday party, Santa made an appearance and brought presents for the kids. When his name was called, my son ran up to him, grabbed his gift and ran back to safety. Apparently presents can entice him into a 5 second encounter and temporarily leave the costumephobia behind him!

What are parents with kids on the spectrum to do about their child’s valid phobia this time of year when around every corner you turn is a Jolly Ol’ Man with a scary fake beard?  Front loading your child before any outing or holiday party to let them know just what to expect will help those kids that are OK with seeing, but not getting close to a character. For kids that have extreme anxiety around a costume character, try showing them photos of the character, going to a store and touching a costume (or bring one home), talk about why they wear the costume and where you’ll be visiting that has characters there.

A supplement that can help anxiety is the amino acid GABA. It is neuro-calming and helps with the neurotransmitters that are needed to balance the excitement or anxiety in our brains.  Magnesium is also neuro-calming and can benefit those with anxiety.

During this holiday season, it’s best to anticipate what may happen and prepare your child with autism or costumephobia on what to expect. Don’t make the mistake I did and force your child to sit on Santa’s lap. Enjoy this holiday season and relax around your costumephobic friends and family. They need you to be empathic and accept their phobia. Ho, ho, ho!

What About Neurofeedback Instead Of Drugs?

When our son was diagnosed with ADHD approximately four years ago, we looked into a drug free treatment for it and stumbled upon neurofeedback (NFB). We never did take the pharmaceutical route, but it wasn’t until this past January (four years later) that we finally jumped in feet first and committed to the neurofeedback for our son. He was 10 yrs old. Our son had difficulty focusing, self-initiation of work, emotional and impulse control, incomplete classwork, couldn’t take notes during lectures, or do his homework without my constant nagging, prodding and watchful eye.

Oh, how I wished we had saved him years of frustration, poor self-esteem, forgetfulness and difficulty with school and homework by doing this back when he was 7 yrs. old.  It is by far the most effective treatment for ADD/ADHD I have ever experienced. We’ve done biomedical treatments for him which has eliminated a lot of symptoms, but his brain neurons needed more help. I highly recommend incorporating biomeds or at the bare minimum, a clean diet with neurofeedback.

The brain is going to need all the support it can get and the first thing you should do before starting NFB is to change the diet. By eating fruit and veggies with less pesticides, no artificial dyes/flavors/preservatives, eliminating msg, nitrites and sulfites. Yes, that means cut out Gatorade, Flamin Hot Cheetos, Skittles, Beef Jerky, cured meats and add in whole grains, lean protein, fruits and vegetables. Oh the horror! Trust me, the pay off is well worth the pain of denying a 9 yr. old his request to stop at 7Eleven for his favorite junk food run.

What is Neurofeedback?

Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback. In biofeedback, information about some part of your body is fed back to you, and you are able to gain control over yourself in a way previously unavailable.

In neurofeedback the information that is fed back to you is EEG (electroencephalogram) data read by sensors placed on your head. Very tiny amounts of electric energy are read and processed by electronic and computer equipment to provide you with moment by moment information about your brain activity.

Brain cells communicate with one another, in part, through a constant storm of electrical impulses. Their patterns show up on an electroencephalogram, or EEG, as brain waves with different frequencies. NFB practitioners first create a “brain map”, the initial EEG readings on their patient to serve as a guide for treatment.

Excessive fast or slow activity is associated with brain dysregulation, and a variety of clinical symptoms.  For example, my son’s EEG showed high Theta waves which are responsible for our daydream state. That explained why he “zoned” out in class and daydreamed, lacked focus and attention. The EEG can show which areas of the brain have high or low wave frequency, or when parts of the brain aren’t communicating adequately with other parts.  Training changes in that activity helps improve self-regulation.

This activity is shown to the neurofeedback therapist as wave patterns on a computer screen, and to patients as visual graphics–ranging from cars racing one another to rapidly changing side by side puzzles. The NFB practitioner will help the patient speed up or slow down the brain waves. The goal is explained to the patient (make one car go faster than the other), and the brain learns how to make that happen without the person knowing how they do it. A sound also beeps when the brain behaves as desired, which helps. Simply wanting to hear the beeps seems to be enough to get the brain to cooperate. This is known as operant conditioning, which forms an association between a behavior and a consequence.

Why do neurofeedback?

When you or your child has difficulty paying attention, or has feelings of depression or anxiety, or perhaps can’t stop thinking about something, is it a psychological or a physiological problem?

Utilizing neurofeedback to train the brain can change these problems.  This is a short list of what NFB can improve:

  • alertness
  • attention
  • emotional regulation
  • behavior
  • cognitive function and mental flexibility

Some of the conditions NFB is used to treat are:

  • ADD/ADHD
  • Autism
  • Epilepsy/seizures
  • Migraines
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

When you change the brain, it undoubtedly affects the mind.  The NFB training produces a measurable physiological effect on the brain.  When you give the brain information about itself, it has an enormous capacity for change.  Neurofeedback makes the information available to the brain almost instantly, and asks it to make adjustments.  The brain can respond rapidly.  Changes in the EEG due to feedback tend to correlate with improved behavior, mood, affect regulation and attention.

Our Success Story

Neurofeedback is usually done in 1/2 hr sessions, one to three times per week. Approximately 30-40 sessions are the standard for optimal change in brain waves. After the first 10 sessions, about 3 weeks into the therapy, I noticed the first dramatic change in my son. He no longer displayed oppositional behaviors and his emotion regulation was normal. He used to anger or get frustrated easily, but that was changed to a more normal emotional response. About the 20th session, his teacher at school noticed his ability to start his work independently. He was able to complete his work 75% of time and it was improving with each session. By the end of 40 sessions, my son was able to focus in school, complete assignments, take notes, write paragraphs unassisted, start and finish his homework by himself.

NFB is not covered by most health insurance and can be costly. The price ranges between $3,000- $5,000 for the brain map and 4o sessions. The good news is that NFB changes are permanent. As a parent that has forgone new living room furniture, a new car in the past 7 years, and countless other material things, the cost was well worth the payoff for my child and my sanity!  NFB works.  All I can say is if you are considering it, do it now. Don’t put it off until “we can afford it”. Work it out and it can change your child’s life. It has mine.

GABA: The Natural “Chill Pill”

Oh, if we all could just “chill out” as easily as my dog!  How many times have you thought that an individual you’ve encountered needed to just take a “chill pill”?  That old saying came up a lot in our house before I discovered the supplement GABA.  Both of my sons had anxiety and were impulsive, which are common in children with autism and ADHD.

That is, until we introduced GABA as a supplement.

GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) is an amino acid that acts as the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in our brain. It also keeps all the other neurotransmitters in check.  The GABA system acts as something of an information filter to prevent the nerves from becoming overstimulated.  It has long been suspected that this filtering process is compromised in many autistic children. Impairment of the GABA system could overwhelm the brain with sensory information, leading to many of the behavior traits associated with autism. GABA is also believed to play a key role in the early development of the brain.

Excitement in our brain needs a balance with inhibition. An unstable balance, or too much excitation will lead to restlessness, insomnia and irritability. GABA will balance this out, naturally. It is also involved with the production of endorphins in our brain, which provide us with that feeling of “all is good”, or what is often referred to as the “runner’s high”. GABA will reduce stress, relieve anxiety and increase alertness.

A deficiency of GABA can contribute to the poor inhibition that allows the brain to become over stimulated, which results in a constant state of anxiety. People with a GABA deficiency may experience:

  • anxiety/nervousness/jumpy or on edge
  • headaches
  • irritability
  • heart palpitations
  • seizures
  • hypertension

Factors that may reduce GABA levels:

  • B1, B6, zinc, manganese and iron deficiency
  • Chronic stress
  • Chronic pain
  • Mercury or lead exposure
  • Inadequate sleep

This can be helped with the GABA supplement.  Whenever you introduce a new supplement, always take it slow and go low on dose. We started with a 250 mg capsule (they can be opened up and mixed in drink/food) and worked our way up over several weeks until we found the dose needed for our children. My son with autism uses between 1,000-1,250 mg/day.  The effects wear off, so we dose throughout the day. I end the day with 500 mg at bedtime to induce relaxation for sleep.

My son with ADHD use to need 1,500 mg/day, but since we treated his ADHD with neuro-feedback, he now only needs 500 mg/day. GABA is a little known, but very effective supplement for symptoms resulting from autism and ADHD. It’s my family’s natural little “chill pill”.

%d bloggers like this: