Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are the second most common developmental disability in the United States, and are often accompanied by difficulty with executive functioning. Now, new research provides evidence that mixed martial arts training can help improve working memory and the ability inhibit natural responses in favor of more adaptive ones in school-aged children with ASD.
The findings have been published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
“As an autism researcher and martial arts enthusiast myself, I often encountered anecdotal reports from parents and from individuals on the autism spectrum of the many benefits of training martial arts,” said study author Janice Ngoc Phung, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University San Marcos.
“At the time of the study’s conception, there were only a handful of research studies that examined the effects of martial arts training on children with ASD, yet none to our knowledge that examined the role of martial arts on executive functioning.”
“Executive functioning abilities are often compromised among children with ASD. However, executive functioning skills are crucial for higher-level cognitive abilities such as impulse control, emotion regulation, and problem-solving. The goal of our study was to seek to improve executive functioning among children with ASD through the weekly practice of martial arts.”
In the study, 43 children aged 8- to 11-years with a clinical diagnosis of ASD were randomly assigned to a MMA intervention group or a control group. Those in the MMA group attended about 26 classes over the course of 13 weeks, in which they learned grappling techniques and combinations of strikes and kicks.
Both the children and their parents completed various assessments of behavior and executiving functioning before and after the 13 week period.
The researchers observed that the MMA training was associated with increased behavioral inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility in the children. Parents also reported that their children’s emotion and behavior regulation had improved after the martial arts training.
“Executive functioning deficits, such as poor impulse control and emotional dysregulation, do not need to be permanent. They are malleable and can be improved upon with effortful practice. Martial arts training may be one way to help improve executive functioning abilities, particularly in populations with poorer executive functioning (e.g., children with ASD),” Phung told PsyPost.
Though the majority of time in the MMA intervention was devoted to learning martial arts techniques, the children also engaged in brief meditation, played social games, did typical warms-ups such as stretches, and sparred with another peer.
“In our study, there were many elements of the martial arts intervention. It included a mindfulness component, a curriculum that increased in cognitive complexity over time, and social modeling by typically-development peers without ASD. To this end, we do not currently know which part (or parts) of the intervention were the most efficacious in driving the observed effect,” Phung said.
“In the future, we seek to examine these components separately to determine which combination of these components helped improve executive functioning the most. Furthermore, activities such as yoga, dance, or team sports (e.g., soccer) also have the potential to improve executive functioning. We plan to explore this next.”
The study, “Promoting Executive Functioning in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder Through Mixed Martial Arts Training“, was authored by Janice N. Phung and Wendy A. Goldberg.