By Michael Collins: Autism Parent & Advocate
Adding my part to help Sevier Martial Arts to raise over $5,000 for the East Tennessee Chapter of The Autism Society of America feels like the culmination of years of hard work.
I suppose it is, not for me, but more for my son, Jacob. Diagnosed with autism at the age of two, Jacob continues to amaze me with all he can accomplish with hard work and perseverance.
Our karate journey started in 2012 when Jacob became captivated with Kung Fu Panda at age 11. He made a habit of acting out parts routinely with punches and kicks accented with shouts, often followed up with comments about Master Shifu’s admiration of Jacob’s rare martial arts skills. I frequently reciprocated but drew my techniques from the likes of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, whom I grew up watching with the same level of admiration.
One Sunday after church, the realization dawned rather abruptly that I may need to look for a more regimented outlet for Jacob’s martial arts ambitions. His dejected approach after Sunday School that day signaled grave disappointment, and his words were few: “No Kung Fu during Sunday School, Dad.” I recognized immediately he was quoting back to me quite reasonable instructions he had received during class, likely after a harmless but chaotic frenzy of kicks and punches had ensued.
I decided immediately to see if I could find a school where Jacob would be accepted while pursuing this newfound and growing passion, so I called Sevier Martial Arts and spoke with Master Cliff Ott.
Master Ott was painfully honest with me after I explained that Jacob had autism and was prone to have bouts of frustration or distractedness but seemed to have this passion about martial arts. “I’ve never had a student with autism,” he admitted, offering no guarantee of success. To address my concern that Jacob might distract to other students, Master Ott suggested that we have a trial period of a month to see if Jacob would adapt well to being in such a structured environment.
Immediately after the first class, however, Master Ott assured me that Jacob was there to stay and the rest, as they say, is history.
Like most history, however, it wasn’t always easy. While so many of Jacob’s life experiences were customized or adapted to his abilities, martial arts require him to be held to the very same, very high standard as every other student. There would be no Individualized Education Plan in this classroom.
Deep down in some small quiet recess of my consciousness, I worried that Jacob might fail. And he has, over and over again.
As hard as it was to watch, frequently seeing tears of disappointment flow freely after and sometimes during class, I eventually came to realize in the encouraging and kind, yet firm setting of Master Ott’s dojang, the process of failure and striving for achievement is actually good for Jacob. In fact, in a world that frequently adapts to meet Jacob’s needs, for which I am grateful, the high standard in this arena may have been exactly what he needed. While it is an almost constant challenge for him to maintain a good attitude during difficult classes, he works all the harder at it out of respect for Master Ott’s expectations. And when Jacob has advanced in Tang Soo Do, he knows he has met the same criteria as all the other students, and I have come to be grateful for that as well.
Master Ott often tells his students that a black belt is a white belt who never quit, and while Jacob is not close to a black belt yet, he has never quit. He has remained steadfast in his determination and moved at his own pace for the last 6 years. I feel like it is pretty safe to say that no one in the history of Sevier Martial Arts has taken so long to earn a stripe on his belt for a spinning back kick as Jacob, but I’m pretty sure no one else felt such a sense of pride in accomplishment once it was achieved either. And even though he is prone to occasionally regress on some of his other previously awarded skills, he never misses executing a very well-structured spinning back kick when called upon. I think he remembers what a challenge it was to achieve and is downright determined to never allow himself to perform that kick with anything less than 100% maximum effort.
Eventually I chose to join Jacob and his sister Lexi in taking Tang Soo Do at Sevier Martial Arts, and now we are all in the same class twice a week. Not only can I get some excellent exercise and help my kids practice, but there is something therapeutic about going to class after a rough day of work and taking out your frustrations in punches and kicks. This works especially well for me on the “dummy” targets, but on sparring nights, the other students punch back, frequently harder and always more accurately. If anyone ever tries to tell you that a 14-year-old girl weighing less than 90 pounds made me cry during a “light” sparring match, I have no comment.
When Master Ott announced the selection of the Autism Society as the beneficiary of this year’s Board Break-A-Thon, Jacob was absolutely thrilled and proudly declared to the class that he had autism. On the day of the event, he cheered for every single student as they broke boards and when his turn came, he marched confidently in, decked out in his freshly awarded green belt, and broke all 5 boards to help raise money to benefit others affected by autism. I could barely contain my pride in seeing him perform with the same skill and discipline as his peers.
Autism has provided many challenges for Jacob, and Tang Soo Do provides even more, but somehow with Master Ott’s patience and diligence and Jacob’s determination, the two have become a great combination for our family, and now for our entire community. Again, we are grateful to take part.