A specially-tailored judo program can help youth diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) increase their level of physical activity, according to new research published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
The findings provide preliminary evidence that the martial arts program can help autistic youth achieve the 60 minutes of daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“My research interests focus on improving health factors, such as physical activity and nutrition, in youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) From my past research, I’ve learned that martial arts may be an enjoyable activity that may appeal to this population and provide mental and physical health benefits,” explained Jeanette M. Garcia, an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida who led the study.
“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,” she said in a news release.
In the study, 14 participants between the ages 8 and 17 participated in a 45-minute judo lesson once a week for eight weeks. The class was specifically designed for children diagnosed on the autism spectrum and participants were separated into smaller groups based on their age.
The lessons consisted of a brief warm-up, followed by instructions on judo holds and throws. “The primary instructor would break each routine exercise into small steps while verbally describing and repeating it multiple times. Assistant instructors would demonstrate modified versions of the exercise for any participants who were struggling,” the researchers explained.
Each session was concluded with time allocated to practice breathing techniques and mindfulness, including participant reflection on the activities completed and a reminder that judo should only be used during the sessions. Each participant also wore an accelerometer to measure their daily physical activity throughout the course of the study.
The researchers found that the judo lessons were associated with increases in moderate to vigorous physical activity among the participants.
“It is often thought that youth with ASD aren’t good at physical activity or prefer not to be active. However, it’s about finding activities that work best for these kids, similar to any typically developing youth. These kids enjoyed the program, and many of them continued practicing judo after the study,” Garcia told PsyPost.
Half of the sample continued to participate in judo lessons or a similar martial arts program following the 8-week program. Many of those who did not continue failed to do so because of scheduling or transportation problems, rather than lack of interest.
Garcia 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.
“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 said.
But given the limited sample size and lack of a control group, more studies are needed to support the findings. “One major question is whether the benefits we are seeing extend to kids with greater severity levels of ASD,” Garcia noted.
“I have realized that youth with ASD can do anything that typically developing youth can do, however, they may just learn or communicate in a different way,” she added.
The study, “Brief Report: Preliminary Efficacy of a Judo Program to Promote Participation in Physical Activity in Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder“, was authored by Jeanette M. Garcia, Nicholas Leahy, Paola Rivera, Justine Renziehausen, Judith Samuels, David H. Fukuda, and Jeffrey R. Stout.