By Gayla Cawley
The Daily Item
LYNN, Mass. (AP) — It might seem counterintuitive to some that kids with autism can benefit from karate, because children on the spectrum sometimes struggle with self-control, according to Susan Gilroy, director of the autism support center at Northeast Arc.
But for the past 11 years, East Coast Karate & Aerobic Fitness Center, located on Union Street, has been offering classes for kids with autism, which parents say has helped their children with discipline, respect, and concentration.
On Sunday, a group of nine children, ranging from 6 to 12 years old, were taking part in a karate class, practicing their punches on a heavy bag, learning Japanese terminology, and maneuvering through different stances under the instruction of the center’s owner, Master Lou Hopkins, and its program director, Mary Panagopoulos.
The nine kids who participated in the class on Sunday are clients of Northeast Arc, an organization that helps people with disabilities become full participants in the communities north of Boston, while also providing support for their families.
Gilroy said Northeast Arc is covering half of the cost for the six-week program for the nine kids, which means the organization picks up $80 of the $160 tab for each child, with the parents paying the rest.
“The benefit karate could offer kids is it could be as easy as starting to listen and stay in stance,” Gilroy said. “My guess is the children feel proud when they participate in something other kids are participating in.”
The partnership began about a dozen years ago when Hopkins and Panagopoulos, a retired special education teacher who worked in Lynn Public Schools, approached Northeast Arc about how they thought children with autism could benefit from participating in a specialized, adaptive class.
Often, parents of children with autism are nervous about taking their kids out into the community and can get stuck at home. Activities such as the karate classes are about encouraging families to try new things, according to Gilroy.
Recreation and leisure is “so important” for those on the spectrum, Gilroy said, because when the kids grow into adults, they have lots of time on their hands, as they’re often underemployed.
“If they have more leisure skills, that makes for a much more interesting life,” she said.
Marcia Gaudette said the class is worth the 30-minute drive from her Melrose home for the benefits it brings to her 6-year-old son, Victor. Her son struggles with directions and she thought karate could help. A big component of the class is following instructions.
“I expect that he will be able to listen more when I talk to him,” Gaudette said. “I have difficulty when I ask him to do something for me.”
Tsering Lama, a Revere resident, said his 8-year-old son, Konchop, seems to be enjoying the classes. He never complains about going and he’s learning about interacting with friends and other people.
Lama said he never thought about karate being beneficial for kids with autism until he found out about the classes. He thought it would be helpful for Konchop, because karate teaches discipline and respect.
Panagopoulos said she and Hopkins called Northeast Arc about wanting to create a special education karate program after getting a lot of parents of kids with autism calling and asking about placing their children into regular karate. When that’s the case, she said, a lot of the time, those kids struggle and it leads to failure.
“Master Hopkins has been working in karate for over 50 years and the knowledge and skill set he has to work with this group is just amazing,” Panagopoulos said. “We do a lot of calisthenics, which strengthens muscle coordination and works them up to being independent. Each class builds onto the next.”
There’s a lot of repetition and skill in karate, she said, which is about movement and following directions. The kids also improve their social skills by working together and learning how to be kind to one another.
Sunday’s class included help from several assistant instructors, young adults on the spectrum, such as 23-year-old Jeremy Nisbet, who has been taking the classes at East Coast Karate since he was 13 and now competes in tournaments, according to his mother, Jennifer Nisbet, who lives in Swampscott.
East Coast offers classes for kids and young adults with autism.
Jennifer Nisbet said she’s seen a marked change in her son since he’s been taking the classes. It’s been the best thing for him, she said, as the instructors push the kids and young adults, but also give them time to learn.
Karate has helped with his concentration and taught him to respect others. In addition, Nisbet said her son enjoys being an assistant instructor and helping with the kids.
“He loves being a role model,” she said. “He looks forward to it.”