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Janet Rosen
05-19-2010, 11:34 AM
This month's The Mirror column was written by Janet Rosen © 2010.
"He lived at a little distance from his body" - James Joyce

He shambles onto the mat, an improbably tall 14 year old, his body so soft it reminds me of Gary Larsen's cartoon of the "boneless chicken ranch." One of our teen students whispers in my ear, "he's autistic."

Sensei is not here, but I know the dojo's culture is one of inclusion; it's one reason I'm there. So I chat for a moment with the adult relative who brought him, reassure her that I'll work with him, and hold out my hand. He almost makes eye contact, lets his hand brush mine.

We all bow in to the student leading the class and warmups begin. I keep glancing down the line to see how Fred (not his real name) is doing. He's watching the leader closely and doing his best to follow along - a good sign. We prepare to do rolling practice.

There is an adult beginner I've been coaching on forward rolls, over on the side with a "crash mat." I ask Fred if he'd like to join us. His face remains solemn, but his eyes are on my face, engaged, and he nods. His ability to connect verbal direction to body movement is iffy - he seems to do better with direct mimicry. There is a laxness in his joints and a tendency to become rooted, but he shows no fear as he essays one roll after another until we call everybody together for aiki taiso.

Fred remains attentive and engaged. I provide some extra coaching and attention, but not a lot - I want to let him spend more time moving and enjoying the exercises than worrying about each one being just right. Then we pair up for partner practice.

I bow to Fred and tell him a little bit about training in aikido - how we work together, cooperating to learn, one person doing an attack so that the other person can apply a technique, then trading places. I describe "safe space" to him and have us face each other, arms extended, fingers just almost touching. We do some exercises walking towards each other, calling out when the other person seems "too close," so I can gauge his awareness of personal space.

I ask him if I may touch him so he can feel what the attack is; he looks somewhat dubious but nods. I slowly step forward and reach for his shoulder, lightly grabbing his shirt. I ask him to do that to me. He stands unmoving. He does not want to attack. I take a step away and ask him if he'd like to see what it is we will be doing and he nods. "Onegaishemasu" I call to the student leading class, and we demonstrate katatori ikkyo. I bow out and walk back to Fred. Right away I notice he is looking at me, but his eyes seem to have a veil in front of them - he has disengaged.

"You don't want to do that, do you, Fred?"

He shakes his head.

"You'd rather not have to touch anybody."

He nods.

I tell him he's done a great job participating in class and walk him back to where his relative is waiting. I let them know that he's welcome to come back and that there will be no pressure for Fred to do more than he's comfortable with.

In talking with Sensei afterwards, we agree that a good approach with Fred would be continued practice on rolling and aiki taiso, plus one-to-one training on movement and energy work that does not involve grabs or strikes but lets him engage with a partner (such as mirrored tenkan exercises). We also agreed to limit his participation to no more than the first hour of class, both to keep it manageable for him and to allow me to do other training during the evening.

Since that night, Fred has come back a couple of times, with one or two week gaps in between. He seems to enjoy the rolling and aiki taiso. We got him doing the basic tenkan exercise solo, and also taught his mom so she could work with him at home on it. That was three weeks ago.

Will he come back? I have no idea.

Is it "worth" having him come back? I know there are people who will read this column and say, well, aikido is a martial art, and you are diluting it in order to provide nice exercise or babysitting for this kid.

I agree that aikido is a martial art; it is for me when I'm training. But I think there is a place in the dojo for Fred, just as there is for the developmentally disabled adult who has been coming once a week for about ten years now (and is at a plateau, but has come oh so far since he first bowed in, and continues to show up with an open heart and mind that can put some folks to shame), just as there is for me, who sets her limits while continuing to try to push the boundaries out.

At the very least, Fred can learn some cross-body connections and mind-body integration that will benefit him for the rest of his life. If he keeps coming back, he may learn via the paired practice to have a deeper level of interaction with another person than he would otherwise achieve.

As for me, each time I bow in to a beginner who poses some kind of physical or developmental challenge, another set of puzzles is presented to me: how to stay open and engaged, how to decide what is the best lesson for that student on that night, what combination of words and movement will best convey that lesson. Throughout all that, I also need to be setting the best example I can in how my own aikido looks and feels.

Sure, some nights I "just" want to work on strikes, or on weight-shifts, or intent, or let myself be tossed around. But some nights there are other parts of being me that can use some polishing.

“The Mirror” is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:

We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.

05-19-2010, 11:50 AM
Nice article.

05-19-2010, 01:03 PM
Well said.
I've had many of those days that what I was working on was not what we were working on in class.
I don't always want to touch or be touched.
Guess we have to learn to blend with everything.

Rabih Shanshiry
05-20-2010, 12:12 PM
Nice story. Part of me wishes I was as philanthropic with my training time as you are. This is something I need to work on.

Marie Noelle Fequiere
05-20-2010, 02:08 PM
Absolutely loved this post. It took me back to my Karate training with my first instructor, who accepted just anyone in his school. I taught some special students too, and making them become like the others was so not important. Just seeing the pride in their eyes when the accomplished another baby step was so great.
Fred and you are so lucky, I envy you.

Janet Rosen
05-20-2010, 02:45 PM
Thank you all for your comments (Marie, so good to see you posting!) ... update is that he has not returned after the third time, it's been about 5 or 6 weeks now.

05-21-2010, 05:01 AM
To make a connection with an autistic; to become an accepted part of his world, even if only for a minute, is a very good day. Never mind what others might expect. These special kids need us to be there for them... I know this very well. Good for you!

Carl Thompson
05-21-2010, 05:42 AM
Even if he just learns to protect himself from falling it will benefit him and this is good training for his teachers too. Perhaps the greatest gift you can give him is the ability to tolerate physical contact. He must be highly functional to be able to get on the mats and take direction at all. Keep up the good work.

Anita Dacanay
05-22-2010, 04:25 AM
It makes me happy that you (and the rest of your dojo) would go to such lengths to accommodate this young man's needs. I found the article to be very inspiring. Thank you, Janet.

05-24-2010, 10:44 AM
We had a guy in my old dojo. He had severe health problems (spine, bladder, etc) and he had no self confidence what so ever. He didn't want to be touched and he didn't even want to be acknowledged. For the first few months, within a few minutes of class, he would walk off the mat whenever he felt like it and sit off to the side. He would not step back on the mat for the rest of the class. He kept showing up though (mainly because his mom and grandmother made him).

Slowly but surely, he got more self confidence and he stayed on the mat longer. Eventually, he would work with people. He ended up quiting after making yellow belt. One day in school, he got beat up by a bunch of kids. They pushed him down to the floor and were kicking and punching him. He was okay because he knew how to fall and he used our "cover position" which one arm covers your spine and the other is up to protect your face/head.

All of this was caught on video and they said if it weren't for that little bit of training he had, he would have been injured pretty bad because of how easily his body can be damaged. Every little bit helps!

05-24-2010, 11:38 AM
Great read, great exchange! You showed some real sensitivity in understanding his desire not to touch, or be touched. This is the kind of stuff that martial arts training is all about.

Anyone who would say you're are diluting the Aikido practice, or "baby sitting" does not understand what we are really doing. All of us have our limits, as you said. Very few of us are interested in fighting with live blades, or taking serious risks in order to train. Just like "Fred", we are all testing the water, and trying to challenge ourselves to see the next step.

Great article, thanks for sharing.

Janet Rosen
05-24-2010, 03:41 PM
Thank you all for your anecdotes & comments. I had mixed feelings about writing this column; the other Mirror editors encouraged me & I'm very glad they did.

05-24-2010, 05:12 PM
Thank you all for your anecdotes & comments. I had mixed feelings about writing this column; the other Mirror editors encouraged me & I'm very glad they did.So are we, Janet... :)

James Davis
05-24-2010, 11:14 PM
Thank you for sharing this, Janet. My boy, who'll have his second birthday next month, is developementally delayed and may be somewhere on the autism scale. I hope that, whatever interests he may pursue, there is someone like you to lend him their time and attention so he can have a good day.

I have two spanish-speaking students that I'm struggling to teach; my spanish really stinks on ice, to say nothing of my japanese! I find that my experience is enriched by meeting them halfway and learning their language as we go.

The most important things we do are sometimes the most difficult.

Thanks, again. :)

06-15-2010, 02:52 PM

Thank you.
Thank you for having doubts about posting this, and having the courage to go ahead and post it anyway.

I was -- I am -- one of the "Freds". I have to be very careful about how I train, and even more careful since surgery. I stayed away from dojo for a couple YEARS because of my own body uncertainties. Now I am just about ready to go back in spite of all this body grinding stone that goes on with me. Not wanting to be touched. Not able to be thrown around. And yet... the little victories, the baby steps, or even just the completions, give confidence and the courage to keep going. In everything.

"Fred" will remember your kindness to him for the rest of his life. He will remember the accomplishment of being able to interact with you, and the care and acceptance you showed him.

Thank you, again.

Janet Rosen
06-15-2010, 06:53 PM
Maya, we are all in this together.... hugs to you.