“Charyut,” my tae kwon do coach said in Korean, “Kyungnet.”
We stood at attention and bowed facing each other as commanded.
I looked at my opponents, two men with red belts (one level below black). We were in full sparring gear: hogus (chest protectors), headgear, mouth guards, and arm and leg pads.
I took a deep breath. “I’m ready for this,” I said to myself.
If this were an official collegiate tae kwon do match, I would have only one female opponent at a time. But for the sparring part of my black belt test at the University of Southern California, my coach wanted to challenge me. We didn’t have other women at the red belt rank in our club, and I was used to sparring men. So the real challenge for me at this stage of my training was to spar against two male opponents at the same time.
“Joon Bi,” said my coach, commanding us to get ready, “Sijak.” And the match began.
I danced around the ring, bouncing on the balls of my feet with my fists close to my chin. Always protect your head, I reminded myself.
One of the guys attacked first. I blocked his kick with my left arm, punched the front of his hogu with my right arm, and pivoted on the ball of my left foot, while the top of my right foot landed a roundhouse kick on the side of his hogu.
Keep him in your peripheral vision, I thought to myself. I slid back and got my right arm down just in time to block my other opponent’s kick.
Tae kwon do is a Korean martial art that translates to “the way of foot and fist.” There are different branches of tae kwon do—the most widely known are World Taekwondo (WT) and the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF)—and they differ in terms of style and philosophies. Our club at USC mostly followed the teachings of the WT branch.
Martial arts admittedly can be Americanized when taught at U.S. gyms and campuses. I actually didn’t have any Korean instructors (or American instructors for that matter); mine were from Greece, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. But I still really valued the teaching I went through and became more familiar with a lot of the history of tae kwon do the longer I studied and trained. My first dan black belt was certified by the Kukkiwon, Korea’s national academy for tae kwon do (also known as the World Taekwondo Headquarters).
I practiced three days a week in an old gym on campus while I was getting my Ph.D. in English at the university. Through my training, I learned poomsae (traditional forms and movement patterns), self-defense moves, and sparring techniques, including blocks, punches, and kicks. I spent five years training for my black belt, but I had no idea when I got started how important this would be for both my physical and mental health.
When I first started tae kwon do training, I struggled with balance, coordination, focus, and even depth perception. I knew I had a long way to go when I gave one of my first instructors a bloody nose because of my complete lack of control when throwing a kick. A few months later, I watched my ankle swell like a balloon when I sprained it in my first tournament as a yellow belt. My team carried me from the tournament site to our van because I couldn’t put any pressure on my ankle. Sometimes I’d leave class with a bandaged, bloody foot or a grapefruit-sized bruise on my hip. To learn what it felt like to really get hit, we’d wear two hogus to double the padding and kick each other hard without blocking.
But I got better as I continued to train. Advancing through the belts, I came to crave the sound of wood cracking with a clean board break, knowing the power and accuracy that I needed to accomplish this. By the time I was a red belt, an axe kick to the face became my signature move, the one that often scored me enough points to win matches. I will never forget the day I landed an axe kick on an opponent’s nose. She didn’t let the blood running down her face stop her and simply plugged up her nose and got back in the ring. And so did I. It wasn’t until after the match that I found out I’d broken my foot with that kick.
At that point, I didn’t know I was autistic.
First, I want to explain that I prefer to use identity-first language (autistic woman) to describe myself, because I can’t separate my autism from who I am; it is an integral part of my identity. My autistic lens affects how I experience the world. But I also sometimes use person-first language (my Twitter handle is @momwithautism) because the extensive challenges with my autism and sensory issues, including autistic meltdowns from sensory overload, are very much a medical condition too.
I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in my late 30s. I have difficulty socializing, obsessive interests, repetitive routines, sensory issues, and anxiety. But it wasn’t until after my autism diagnosis that I realized how essential my tae kwon do training is for my mental health and day-to-day functioning. Even my clinical psychologist said to me that he was surprised by my ability to cope as an undiagnosed autistic woman for so long without other interventions, but my training had clearly become a crucial outlet for me.
While I realize that this may not work for everyone, I’ve found that my intense exercise routine, which includes martial arts and long-distance running, keeps me from becoming overwhelmed with the challenges of my autism and sensory issues. The repetition of kicking targets and running long distances calms my mind and gives me much needed stress relief. This training gives me a mental reset, so to speak, disrupting chaotic thoughts and allowing me to focus much better.
“The martial arts are typically a nonverbal physical experience, which can be attractive to individuals who prefer not to talk out their feelings,” Yoendry Torres, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and fourth-degree black belt in tae kwon do, tells SELF.
With his 10 years of experience teaching tae kwon do, including time as a USA tae kwon do associate coach, Torres has seen his students improve their coordination, attention, and confidence, especially with “the many small successes experienced in tae kwon do, from learning one’s poomsae to breaking a board to kicking higher than the last class,” he says. (Torres is also the owner and head coach of Taekwondo Wellness, which merges martial arts and psychotherapy.)
Like many other autistic people, I have difficulty with executive functioning—the mental skills that help with making decisions, focusing attention, and organizing information. But with tae kwon do training, I noticed that my attention to my surroundings seemed to improve dramatically. As an autistic woman, I can sometimes become so absorbed in what I’m doing that someone can call my name multiple times without getting a response. But through tae kwon do, I learned how to better divide my attention so that I could respond faster to what I heard and saw when sparring. I found that this skill transferred to outside the dojang (training hall) too: I had always been good at focusing on my studies, for example, but having tae kwon do as an outlet to exercise my mind and body kept me from hyperfocusing or intensely concentrating so much on my research that I ignored other responsibilities and made me more productive with the time I did spend on it.
A small study published last year in Frontiers in Psychology looked at two groups of undergraduate students (who weren’t autistic): one group was made up of students who had participated in martial arts within the past two years (and who had anywhere from two to 18 years experience), and the other group had no martial arts training at all. Using a special psychology software tool on the computer, the researchers analyzed whether participants who had martial arts training responded faster to stimuli and targets that appeared on a screen in both predictable and unpredictable intervals compared to the group with no training. The results showed that the martial arts group had quicker reaction times and alertness scores when the targets appeared in unpredictable intervals; and the more years of training people had, the better their alertness scores were. (It’s important to note that the study couldn’t actually prove a causal relationship between the martial arts training and the better reactivity and alertness they displayed in the experiment.)
The exact mechanisms behind why martial arts may have these types of positive effects isn’t totally clear. But, as the authors noted in the research, the general thinking is that the martial arts experience involves intense motor training, the need to maintain a constant state of concentration, and reactivity, all while involving a social element (like when you’re up against an opponent).
The coauthors of the study—Paloma Mari-Beffa, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in neuropsychology and cognitive psychology, and Ashleigh Johnstone, a doctoral student in psychology, at Bangor University—explain to SELF in an email that martial arts is unique in that it focuses on what’s called “attention state training.” Arising from Asian traditions such as mindfulness and meditation, attention state training involves changing the state of your mind and body in order to improve your general focus.
“A big part of attention state training is teaching people to learn to expect the unexpected—it teaches you to approach unexpected events with a sense of readiness and a ‘can do’ attitude,” Mari-Beffa and Johnstone explain. They go on to say that martial artists are often “given seemingly impossible goals to help show that with the right approach, you can do almost anything.” Mari-Beffa, a second-degree black belt in Shukokai (a style of Karate, another martial arts form), credits practicing karate for the past eight years as an activity that has improved her general well-being and mental health.
After I left USC, I went on to teach tae kwon do to adults and children in the Wellness Center at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, where I lived on campus as a writing professor with my family. Now, back in the U.S., I take my two daughters—one of whom was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder—to train at a tae kwon do academy. I also practice with them at home so I can encourage them to be strong, maintain focus, and feel confident.
Some of the best times of my life were spent in a dojang. During tae kwon do training, I could forget about the intensity of my sensory issues, the anxiety of social situations, and the stress of being overwhelmed as an autistic woman. The quiet contemplation while performing a poomsae in unison, the mental and physical grit needed for clean board breaks and successful sparring matches—these were life lessons that showed me I was capable of accomplishing whatever I set my mind to do.
Jen Malia is an associate professor of English at Norfolk State University. Her debut children’s picture book, Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism,* will be published by Albert Whitman in 2020. She has written for Glamour, Woman’s Day, New York magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Catapult, among others. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram*.