Practicing Judo Could Improve Health, Social Struggles Of Children With Autism

ORLANDO, Fla. — According to a study by researchers at the University of Central Florida, practicing the martial art Judo is a viable option for helping children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) be more active and interact with others.

The pilot study concluded that practicing Judo gave children with ASD more opportunities to engage in physical activity, thereby reducing their risk of heart disease, obesity, and more. Interestingly, after the study, the children involved expressed interest in continuing to practice Judo.

Children practicing Judo
Researchers at the University of Central Florida thought judo might be a good fit because its approach held promise for addressing some of the challenges these children face, including communication deficits, high levels of anxiety, difficulties with social interaction, and preferences for structured and repetitive activities. Judo promotes social interaction, emphasizes mindfulness, and focuses on balance, strength, and coordination, while alternating between low, moderate, and high-intensity exercise. (Photo credit: University of Central Florida)

Parents reported in the study that their children were more comfortable with social interaction and physical activity overall, two areas in which children with autism struggle with.

“While karate, a form of martial arts, has documented benefits for the autism population related to social interaction, we hypothesized that the emphasis on mindfulness and self-defense promoted by judo would provide additional benefits for ASD youth,” said study leader Jeanette Garcia, UCF assistant professor of Health Professions and Sciences, in a university¬†release. “Indeed, our study shows that judo not only promotes social skills, but is well accepted by this population and is a great program for reducing sedentary behavior and increasing confidence.”

Garcia and her team chose Judo for their study because they thought it would help address many of the challenges children with autism face, such as communication deficits, anxiety, difficulties with social interaction, and preferences for repetitive, highly structured activities. Judo demands a strict structure, promotes social interaction, emphasizes mindfulness, and uses low, moderate, and high-intensity exercises to develop balance, strength, and coordination.

Fourteen children between the ages of eight and 17 were chosen for the experiment. They participated in one 45-minute Judo lesson at UCF once a week for eight weeks. The class was designed for children with ASD and taught by instructors familiar with ASD symptoms.

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The instructors closed off the areas of the gym that weren’t being used for class to limit distractions, and extra individual practice time was given to students that needed it. The students learned the concepts and moves of Judo and practiced them with each other. The end of each lesson was devoted to breathing and mindfulness exercises.

The students were also given wearable accelerometers to determine their activity and rest levels outside of class and at the beginning and end of the study.

“This first cohort of students in the judo program showed positive results in achieving the desired health outcomes,” Garcia said. “We will extend the study with this cohort and others to continue to assess the impact of the program. If it continues to be successful, we look forward to developing a program that schools can use to implement their own programs.”

The study is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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