Tae Kwon Do and Aspergers
As an Aspie, I know it is very difficult to break routine. It is where I feel safe. It is fair to say, we could do with people, sometimes, to act as a guiding light. That is how I ended up doing Tae Kwon Do.
That was how I felt at the start of 2014. 36 years old, I had just completed a Bachelor Of Arts Open Degree with The Open University. I knew I would need something to fill my time; time that, in the preceding six years, I had spent studying, writing and undertaking exams. That had been a very comfortable, if sometimes stressful, part of my daily routine. But now I really wanted something else with which to fill the time. It had to be something completely different, I told myself. Change is frightening but, occasionally, if it doesn’t happen, I get a feeling of frustration; of staleness; of feeling like the world and my family and my friends and all the other things that fill my world are moving on and leaving me behind.
I was fed up studying. Yet I had learned skills of focus and dedication that I wanted to apply elsewhere. My friends had mentioned to me, in passing, over the years, how much they enjoyed doing Tae Kwon Do. But my confidence initially defeated me.
Doing exercise at school had always been a nightmare for me. No one knew what was “wrong” with me. I didn’t know, naturally, what to do in class. I tried, desperately and with much enthusiasm, to join in but could never get things right. A good example here would be trying to jump over the horse in the gym. Everyone else, it seemed, could propel himself or herself over it with ease. I got laughed at by classmates, having to haul myself over it, normally getting stuck halfway.
Another good example would be trying to play hockey. Try as I might, I could never hit the puck with the stick and normally ended up hitting either myself or one of my teammates.
No one ever wanted me on their team. My teachers got very frustrated. I still vividly recall one teacher, when I was about 7 years old, screaming her lungs out at me, in front of the whole class, in the gym, because I couldn’t tie my skipping ropes properly.
I never seemed, naturally, to know what to do next. I never seemed to take the initiative. I had to have the simplest things broken down for me. After all, everyone else in my class could do it, so I really needed to try much harder, didn’t I? That was the underlying impression I got from everyone. These are, I am sure, sentiments that are very familiar to all Aspies.
Any new activity is a break from our routine. This is bound to cause stress and worry. This is what parents/teachers/colleagues/friends really, fundamentally, fail to grasp at times. They see us as predictable creatures of habit that seem oblivious to the needs and wishes of others.
The Aspie feels pushed and pulled between what they feel and what they want and what others demand and expect of them. The parent/teacher/friend sees such potential in their child/friend/student and yet gets so frustrated by the simplest tasks they see them stumbling over.
Before I started my first Tae Kwon Do lesson, I had all these limiting thoughts and more playing inside my head.
I had visions of myself, at the back of the class, just like in PE in primary school, struggling to keep up while others sailed effortlessly onwards. So, to come back to my initial question, how did I feel at the start? Very nervous and unsure of myself. Yet. also, there was a burning curiosity, a desire within me to find out, what if?
At the end of the first lesson, I had a small revelation. Everyone else in the class was there to learn as well. What had I been worrying about? I fitted right in. There were quite a few beginners in the class. People who, no doubt, felt pretty much the same way as I did. But, that is jumping ahead.
Tae Kwon Do is a very rhythmic form of martial art. As an Aspie, I am, naturally, a creature of habit. I learn well by doing the same things over and over again. Slowly, the nervousness gave way to a rush of relief. I had done it. I had taken that first step. But that, again, is jumping ahead.
In school, teachers and others, well-intentioned or otherwise, would try to help me (or, sometimes, ‘help’ me) by saying things such as “Look, I’ve shown you before, remember? What did we do last time? It’s quite simple — you do this, then you do this and then you do this.” I, shy and unsure of myself and not wishing to annoy or frustrate them any further, would meekly nod and say yes, I understood, even when it was plain to me that I had not. The truth is, I was too frightened, or too embarrassed and ashamed of myself, to do anything else.
The difference is, in a Tae Kwon Do class, I get guidance about how to do things in a certain way; about how to improve; about how to think through things; about why I am doing them; about what they represent.
I did not learn to ride a bike until I was twelve. I could never master skipping (or even the tying of the rope) when in PE lessons at school. And then, in later life, I tried the gym, with a programme, which instructors had worked out for me. I had nothing to measure myself against, so that didn’t work either.
This is why, in many ways, Tae Kwon Do suits me as an exercise. You have tangible targets to work towards. For example, I have to work toward making my stances longer and wider and all my kicks now have to be above belt height.
I know what I have to work towards. I know what I have to focus on. This is different to school when I was growing up. There, I was always told things like “Remember what you did last time” or “Just try and follow what everyone else is doing”, which, of course, were things I fundamentally could not do.
Having shared with the class instructors that I have Asperger’s Syndrome, they have been extremely supportive of me, pairing me up with senior members of the club, who will work with me, encourage me, tell me what I am doing right and what I need to work on. Most importantly, in each case, they tell me why I need to work on it. This has brought me on in so many ways, which I did not expect.
I also have a great deal more confidence in myself. An example of this would be the way I threw myself into the kicking exercises we were given in the last class I attended. Where once I might have been apprehensive and afraid, I approached the class with zeal and aplomb.
This is not a mindset I’ve achieved overnight. Rather, it’s been a process of trying new things, persevering, and ignoring that voice in my head that says, “Don’t be daft, you can’t do this.” Tae Kwon Do allows me to put all that to one side and simply focus on being the best I possibly can be. This means less excuse making about why I can’t do something. This means pushing myself.
It allows me to see where my real boundaries lie, rather than simply accepting where I tell myself they lie. I may have once been content to believe that kicking to the height between knee and belt on my opponent was the best I could do. My joints are stiff, I would have told myself. Now I know I can do better. And that enables me to focus more.
Do you ever get people winding you up, as I do, for your hobbies, seeing you as a figure of fun? Someone whom they can, to be perfectly blunt, take the piss out of? People who will always ask you, out loud and in company, if you’re still doing such-and-such, then make a fool out of you when you say yes and launch into a monologue. The underwater office bullies, as I ended up calling them. The sort of person who’s always on hand “for a laugh”, to tell you what you should be doing, to tell you how poorly you actually are doing. At the time, I would just blush and try and laugh along with them.
People don’t do that so much to me now. Not because they see me as some sort of human powerhouse but because I come across as more confident. There were certainly some moments when I honestly felt like I should pack the whole thing in. I couldn’t do this nearly as well as everyone else. They’d obviously spent a great deal more time with me rehearsing their patterns. I was, obviously, never going to be as good as everyone else.
I think that is where far too many Aspies of my generation have stalled in life. People haven’t known what is “wrong” with us, have written us off as hopeless cases. So here was my chance to prove myself.
I already had friends in the class. That, actually, was the one thing that had not dawned on me until that first day. When I thought about that, it was like a rucksack of pressure had been lifted off my back!
The instructor welcomed me and some other newbies. That was something else I hadn’t thought of — I wasn’t the only one who was new! This is one of the traps of Asperger’s Syndrome — one thinks one is the only one who is new to an activity.
You can help yourself by doing some research into a club or activity before going along for the first time. Then you won’t spend ages wondering, what if?
Parents/guardians/friends: you can help by giving advice and also, more crucially, sometimes, by not giving advice. Don’t make all advice you give a list of don’ts, such as:
“Listen, when you’re at this thing tonight. Don’t just listen to half of what you’re told and end up doing completely the wrong thing. Don’t say you’re doing your best, when what you really mean is that that’s all you can be bothered doing.”
Well-intentioned as “a wee chat” such as the above may be, what you will, in fact, be doing, will be reinforcing negativity and flaws, in the mind of the Aspie. What you need you to do, instead, is to point the way forward for them.
I have now been doing Tae Kwon Do for 2 years. I still feel very much at the start of a journey. With each class, I feel like I am leaping forward and learning something new. My confidence grows, as I reaffirm what I already know, while also improving and enhancing my skills.
So, to conclude, what do I get out of Tae Kwon Do? I get a general good feeling. Exercise of any kind releases endorphins in the body. I had never believed that, until I tried Tae Kwon Do.
I have a better idea of what I can, realistically, achieve. I also leave each lesson with lots of very good tips about what I can do to improve. This gives me a much better idea of how far I have come. And where I need to go next.
I also get a very strong sense of self-worth, from people putting in time and effort into teaching me something, taking care to ensure that I understand.
When I was learning my second pattern, I was having problems transitioning from one set of moves to another. The first pattern had been a simple set of moves performed once in one direction and then once in the other. This second pattern was a bit different. I started to lose track of what bit went where. I began to worry. I began to panic. Having watched me a few times, one of the club’s owners took me, slowly, through the movements and gave me one very valuable bit of advice.
“When you are transitioning from one set of moves to the other, when facing the back of the hall, you turn a full half-turn and then, when going the other way, it is only a quarter-turn.”
It opened up the whole pattern for me and made things so much easier. Tae Kwon Do makes me feel good about myself. Rather than storing up feelings of frustration and aggression, I have a controlled environment in which I can let it out.
What, therefore, would be my advice, to any other Aspie out there, reading this? Go out there and find something to focus on, which you enjoy, just like I did; preferably something where you will be encouraged to be your best and where you learn to challenge your thoughts in a safe, structured environment. It will take every ounce of courage you have to take that first step, but once you do, you’ll open up so much as a person, which will only be to your benefit. And you’ll really enjoy it.
ROBERT LAING BIOGRAPHY
Robert discovered he had Asperger’s at the age of 20, quite by chance. His mother had been given Tony Attwood’s first book and recognized within it characteristics and situations similar to these encountered by both Robert and herself as a parent.
Robert has felt moved to write about Asperger’s – both his own experience with it and also the help that is available out there to others – now, because there are more people both being born with it and also being diagnosed with it retrospectively, in later life. He wishes to offer help and advice to others, just as others have done for him.
Aside from Asperger’s Syndrome, Robert also writes for a variety of website and print publications on subjects such as music, books and the local area in which he lives.
Robert has done a considerable amount of research into the average Aspie diet. He is sure that both parent and Aspie alike will find something to relate to in both this and future articles and welcomes feedback from both. He can be contacted for this and other writing matters at [email protected].