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The Unique Discipline of Martial Arts for Autism


Hanko ryu Kim Shirley
Update - Mom is now a Karate student herself!
Kyoshi and Dan kicking
Look at that proud smile!

By Kim Stagliano

My Facebook friends know that I train in Karate and  Kobudo (weapons) five or six days a week. On Saturday  I had completed a one hour kickboxing class in the morning and a ninety minute weapons class in the afternoon. Feeling tired, and ready to go home, I was chit chatting with a few other students and the dojo owner when I heard a keening cry outside. A sound all too recognizable having heard my own daughters cry out the same way. An "autism cry."  "That's my next student, my private lesson," said Kyoshi Danilo Torri, a 6th Dan black belt instructor who has trained since the age of seven and owns Hanko Ryu Martial Arts in Trumbull, CT. 

I had met an autism Mom at a meeting with our mutual Department of Disability Services case Kyoshi with Mia manager last Fall.   We had much in common.  She is a writer, and is looking at all options to help her son. She's a Warrior Mom.  I told her about the dojo's private classes for children with special needs. My own daughters train every week in simple exercises suitable to their abilities.

Sure enough, a few moments later, the beautiful blonde woman I had met opened the door and cajoled her crying son to enter the dojo.  She gently guided him to a seat to take off his shoes. He was crying out, as if in pain. "It's his gut," Mom said in her elegant Israeli accent. "He is often in pain."  Ah, called that one.  Wish I hadn't. She did her best to ease his discomfort as he squatted on the bench, posturing and holding his head. We greeted each other and I continued to gather my belongings before leaving.

As she was explaining to Kyoshi about her son's needs and behaviors, the child lashed out as quick as Bruce Lee himself, smashing his mother in the face.  Kyoshi instantly stopped the attack with very firm but resp----  well, I could explain what happened, but I think Mom can do a better job. This is what she wrote on her FB wall later in the day.  And what I wrote as well.

Please meet attorney and author of Autism Mom Shirley Blaier-Stein.

Kyoshi and Dan 2
Dan listening to Kyoshi.

Today at karate class I had a very special surprise.

Dan has been crying and whining all day today. Abdominal pain, as usual. When it was time to go to his new karate class (we’ve only been to one – absolutely amazing – class), he was whining, but still managed to get ready and come with me to the car. When we got there, even though he was in pain, when I gave him the option to go in or go home, he chose to come inside with me. Just after I helped him take off his shoes and explain to Kyoshi, the teacher, and Kim Rossi Stagliano, a fellow autism mom and a phenomenal writer, who also recommended this teacher to us, about what’s going on with my boy, Dan smacked me in the face really hard.

It was his way of saying ‘I feel terrible and I don’t want you to talk about me with these people while I’m present,’ and he had a point, but it really hurt.

What happened seconds after that smack, was so surprising and touching. Kyoshi grabbed Dan’s arm and told him to never hit his mother again and to say sorry (which Dan did!), and soon after that he took Dan inside the studio to start karate practice. Within seconds Dan started to cooperate with him.

Kim wrapped her arms around me and let me cry in her hug. When I felt a little better she ran to grab tissue paper and sat really close to me until I was OK. She did not leave until Dan’s practice was over and until she convinced me to join her and a group of other autism moms in karate practice and kickboxing, which I’m going to do starting next week.

I felt so lucky that Dan and I got to be supported by these two wonderful people today. Kim’s wonderful book is called All I Can Handle: I’m no Mother Teresa. Kim, I’ll never forget this day.

Today you were a mother to me.

Concurrently I had written on the Age of Autism FB page:

Shirley and Dan dancing
Shirley and Dan dancing.

I want to share this - I am not much of a crybaby - or cry woman. I don't SOB at the drop of a hat. But today I witnessed something pretty amazing during a private lesson that followed my weapons class in the Karate dojo where I train. And I did cry. I wrote this on the dojo wall:

"Kyoshi Torri worked with a new student today, a boy with severe autism. The child went from frustrated, in pain and lashing out physically at his Mom - to laughing on the mats with Kyoshi and participating in some exercises. It was a miraculous transformation. A true teacher is patient, kind, firm and can work with any student - not just the best and brightest. A nod of appreciation to Kyoshi - who made the boy and his mother feel welcome and better yet - successful, despite a rough start. Enjoy the weekend. We're open Monday."

I stayed and gave Mom a hug - the boy really hauled off and smashed her face - and for those of us who have had that happen it's humiliating, painful and as sad as anything you can experience. We chatted for the half hour. She's a terrific Mom - working hard for her son. This is what we do autism peeps - we reach out and grab the hand when we need to - and sometimes we throw our hand out hoping for the same.

Osu. KIM

Later, I asked Kyoshi how he seems to have an instinct for training our children on the spectrum, jokingly calling him

Kyoshi with Carter on knee
Kyoshi Torri with a young student on the spectrum.

"The Dojo Whisperer."  His answer was as streamlined and direct as his karate:  "I do this from my heart, to help the kids. And the parents.  I'm kind when I need to be kind. And firm when I need to be firm. I told him to stop and never to hit his mother again.  And I apply the same rules as I would for a typical kid." 

That's an important message for all of us. We are often surrounded by "autism experts" who frankly, don't really help our kids any better than anyone else. Our kids are kids first - humans - not some new species, not some separate version of children, even though they have differences. I've always said, "My girls are not autistic, they have autism. They are young women with autism." 

Bottom line? We can help each other in tiny ways that mean the world at the time.   Has anyone reached out to you when you needed it most? Have you done the reaching out yourself?  We've had a lot of angst in the community. I've told you I am over that crap - "Finito!" as my Gianna says 3,465 times a day. It's her favorite word. Bring comfort, move people forward or step aside.

If you want to find a dojo where your child can train, log onto DojoLocator.com.  Our dojo offers Shito Ryu Traditional karate, which means "Half hard, half soft style," because of the techniques used. That also describes the best teachers and parents - half hard, half soft - which is how we teach our children to grow up and help them to navigate the world.

Please check out Shirley's book, AUTISM MOM on Amazon, I think you'll like it,

Shirley Blaier SteinAt age 33, it seemed that Shirley Blaier-Stein had it all. She lived in New York City with her loving husband and beautiful boy and was well into a successful legal career. When her son Dan was diagnosed with autism at age three, her world falls apart. Lonely, isolated, and with no answers or hope from doctors, she realizes that she has to pave her own road to Dan’s healing.

Determined to not leave a rock unturned, Shirley dives into learning everything she can about autism and treatments. She comes across the amazing story of Joseph, a spiritual healer who was severely autistic as a child. Joseph explains to her that autism is a language that most people don’t understand, and that parents are the autistic child’s primary healers and channels to the world.

Autism Mom unfolds a riveting story on how to understand autism, speak its language, and truly communicate with the autistic child. Getting into her son’s head leads Shirley to realize how much he understands and how hard he was fighting to make his way to her and to our world. This realization empowered her in her mission.

Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and inspiration, Autism Mom powerfully captures the struggles and joys of a mother creating a new life against all odds on a journey that shook her, strengthened her, and taught her that anything is possible.

House of Cards 200 pixelsKim Stagliano is Managing Editor of Age of Autism. Her novel,  House of Cards; A All I Can Handle 50 pixel Kat Cavicchio romantic suspense is available from Amazon in all e-formats now. Her memoir, All I Can Handle I'm No Mother Teresa is available in hardcover, paperback and e-book.



Tom Scott

I am a retired police officer and teach martial arts. I have a 16 year old young man with autism I have been teaching isshin-ryu karate too for the past couple years and he is doing well. Also I have a five year old grandson with autism but I have not begun formal karate practice with him. I teach "informal" tai chi movements with him "deep and wide" breathing movements. Thanks for your story.

Avery Schlacter

I really enjoyed reading this! I think it's a great idea to have martial arts for autism. My mom teaches autistic kids so I'm going to have to show this to her. http://www.hmdacademy.com/about-hmd/


Kim; great post; so kind and heartwarming.
Re the ABA person; do you ever get so you just think about someone; WHAT is going through your head?
Firstly, I'm betting if she was on the receiving end of punches from someone strong enough to do damage, the whole "ignore" thing wouldn't be happening.
Secondly she seems to missing the fact that plenty of people who would love to whack someone when they are annoyed. The reason they don't is because they come to realize that it is wrong to hurt another person.
If a child hasn't realized that yet, and is never told something is wrong, why would they ever stop?
An awareness that something is wrong is needed before you can change.
Ignoring violence is in this case basically a form of approval.
"We are not going to stop you or tell you its wrong; Mom just needs to suck it up". Scary from someone who is apparently trying to help our kids.

And on a practical note..punching someone is going to be a much less satisfying behavior, if the punch does not land, and the result is that you can't punch the person again.

So glad Mom is learning to protect herself. No one needs to be anyones' punching bag, even if they love them and understand why they are frustrated and want to hit out.

It is also great that the little boy is learning to channel his anger safely and appropriately with martial arts. If he learns to punch the bag when he is angry instead of Mom then that is a huge success for everyone.
Thank you for sharing a piece of kindness in a world that sometimes has too little of it.

Stagmom for Dadvocate

Thanks, Dadvocate. Kyoshi showed Mom several blocks to protect herself from his strikes today and how to then gently but effectively prevent the next strike. I had an anon commenter come into my Kim blog yesterday (I had posted a version of this post there) and be so rude - an ABA person telling me that we should IGNORE behavior and not reward it. This is AGGRESSION and will land the boy - any person - in dire straits as he grows larger and more threatening. We can not use ineffective techniques - we have to ACT NOW as our kids grown toward adulthood to protect THEM - Mom will not strike back but many CARETAKERS sure will. Would love to hear more about your program. KIM


Terrific piece, Kim.

Through my study of Aikido, which is somewhat similar to Judo and emphasizes using non-injurious leverage, throws, and pins (versus kicks and punches) to disable aggressors, I have been able to develop (in pretty short order) skills that allow me to not only protect myself but competently and SAFELY control or redirect (with a very light touch) my adult son's fleeting and impulsive strikes, lunges, and grabs at me or others.

Some of the many restraining pins I've learned, which I have not to this point had occasion to use outside of class with typical partners (thank goodness), appear to me to be very similar, if not identical, to those taught to safety professionals by outfits like CPI http://www.crisisprevention.com/Resources/Knowledge-Base/General/Physical-Restraint-Training

What is pretty confounding to me is the fact that, unless one is employed or affiliated with a formal business, school or other established organization, parents or caregivers simply cannot access quality personal safety training like that offered by CPI. Apparently, for reasons of liability, they just won't make it available to individuals. That's yet another thing that needs to change.

I highly recommend the study of martial arts, especially Aikido, for a lot of reasons, but I think the things I practice are particularly valuable skills to have in circumstances involving autism in the community. Keep in mind that in Aikido, size, age, strength, and gender are irrelevant. It's all about balance, movement, and timing. I have also noticed that people with dance backgrounds seem to take to it like fish to water, though I have 2 left feet and still do pretty well. Again, great story and continued success at dojo.

Michael William Sweeney


I met my business partner Francesco Rulli through Dustin's Judo lessons. Francesco is a Black Belt in Judo and teaches kids at the New York Athletic Club. He had a unique way with my now 16 year old Autistic son that started out as a friendship and is now a partnership. www.FilmAnnex.com is a sponsor of the 2014 New York Open Judo Championships on March 2, 2014 at the NYAC. Please contact me (all Autistic families) for tickets.



Mike Sweeney

Laura Hayes

This is what touched my heart:

"Kim wrapped her arms around me and let me cry in her hug. When I felt a little better she ran to grab tissue paper and sat really close to me until I was OK. She did not leave until Dan’s practice was over and until she convinced me to join her and a group of other autism moms in karate practice and kickboxing, which I’m going to do starting next week."

That exemplifies giving of oneself for another. That is what a true, loving gesture looks like. That is comfort that actually comforts. That might be the start of a beautiful friendship, or at least of supportive camaraderie. I find it unusual (disheartening, actually) that it is almost always one "vaccine injury/autism mom" comforting another. There seems to be little comfort or support offered by those not in our situation. Strange, since our lives are extremely challenging, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Maybe that is the problem, that our challenges seem so daunting, and long-lasting, that people just don't offer help at all.

You, Kim, did a wonderful thing...a true act of love, comfort, support, and encouragement. May others be inspired to do the same :)


It's heartbreaking to see one's child in pain, with so few practical palliative options available. Some pain relievers make constipation worse. Others are only marginally effective. Morphine probably has the necessary potency, but it suppresses appetite.

How anyone can dismiss gastrointestinal problems as simply comorbid and an inconvenience is beyond my comprehension.

Patrick Williams

As part of my job I read about martial arts on a daily basis , and it is always a pleasure to read positive stories such as this one.

I believe that martial artists have several things in common, determination, perseverance and in most case humility. This story highlights all three in many different people.

I applaud you Kim for bring this story to light.

Not an MD

Well, Kim, you have exposed something that is obvious to others, including Shirley, and all the rest of us who read Age of Autism. You rock! Anyone who has you in their life is just plain lucky.

Louis Conte

It is great to see the truth about martial arts being told.

It isn't about violence or warfare. Its about being of service to others and teaching that as a way of life.

That is what Kim is all about so I am not surprised to see her showing us this.

John Stone

What a very touching story, Kim.


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