By: Felix Rodriguez, Staff Writer
HOUSTON, TX, January 14, 2013 – TXMMA interviewed a psychiatrist and a BJJ black belt to find out if the exercise regimen and structure of a children’s jiu-jitsu program can have a positive effect on kids diagnosed with mental disorders, learning disabilities and developmental disorders.
Cesar De Paz is a psychiatrist in the process of completing a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry at UTMB-Galveston. Aside from his extensive medical studies, De Paz has more than ten years of experience training in jiu-jitsu. According to Dr. De Paz children diagnosed with ADHD or autism are placed in a spectrum or range that quantifies the severity of their condition and their level of functioning. He told TXMMA that kids on less severe spectrums of ADHD and autism can “benefit as much as any other kid from participating” in physical activities like BJJ “where they are able to participate in a group” and that “for the more severe cases of autism and ADHD he can’t say much about that at this point because there is not very much research out there.”
Jeff Messina is the owner and head instructor of Revolution Dojo. He is a first-degree black belt under Rodrigo Medeiros that has been training since 1997. Revolution Dojo’s children’s jiu-jitsu program was among the most accomplished in 2012 with kids and teens programs placing first in NAGA and Grappler’s Quest tournaments in Texas. Messina has been teaching BJJ to children at his academy since 2004 and offers programs that begin introducing the basic concepts of BJJ to children as young as four years old, some of which have been diagnosed with varying disorders. Messina believes jiu-jitsu can be beneficial to almost anyone based on his experience teaching “people with head injuries from combat, people with missing limbs” and various “people with other mental and emotional” type of disorders. He teaches BJJ to young and accomplished competitors right along with children diagnosed with ADD, ADHD and autism. He believes that like with any kid learning something new beginning poses some challenges but the rewards are well worth it.
When asked if Dr. De Paz would recommend BJJ for children and teenagers diagnosed with ADD, ADHD or autism he emphasized that “any child or person with a mental or developmental disorder” should receive “some kind of clearance from a doctor before enrolling in a BJJ class” that is “individual to each person.” He also told TXMMA that some studies have shown kids diagnosed with autism “who exercise before class respond academically better than those who don’t.” De Paz believes children on the smaller spectrums of autism and ADHD may benefit more than those on the more severe scale, but overall, “structured activities” like jiu-jitsu have a generally positive effect on certain children with special needs because “the kids learn how to communicate with people better while becoming more social and outgoing.
Jeff Messina believes jiu-jitsu provides a learning environment where it is easier to focus on directives and it is easier for children to interact with their peers because learning Jiu-Jitsu “is not as serious as a classroom so they’re allowed to talk and express themselves and it gives them a task to focus on where they are able to blend in better with other kids.” He noted that students with these kinds of special needs could be unsure “about how to behave in certain situations around other peers their age,” but eventually learn to adapt to the class structure. According to Dr. De Paz this may occur in part because “exercise decreases self-stimulating behavior.” He explained that exercise in general “is very helpful and useful just as a general recommendation in medicine” and that as a child psychiatrist he recommends that his patients become active and get involved in some form of sports activity because research has shown “children with mental disorders statistically are less active than other children” so getting them physically active has shown to be “effective in improving their overall health.” He recommends that parents inform the child’s BJJ instructor of what their child’s diagnoses are so they can learn to manage their disorders more effectively and so that instructors show more patience towards these children.”
Messina elaborated on this point by highlighting examples of his own experiences dealing with children with special needs. One behavior management technique he has had success with when dealing with adapting students involves having a special needs child “that can’t follow the order of the class” become a helper that assists him and follow him around to “check the techniques while” he spends “more one on one time with the whole class.” He agrees that extra patience and attention is required because “some of the kids might blurt random questions or random thoughts and ideas that are completely inappropriate to what’s going on in class.” Messina recommends trying not to put a lot of attention on such instances and to focus on incorporating the student into other things. He handles that type of scenario by not paying too much attention to the unwanted behaviors in order to “remove them” from the spotlight “until they feel ready to come back able to participate” so they don’t “distract the rest of the class while still keeping them involved.” While he acknowledges that “these kids provide different challenges” he also believes “each one of these kids has the ability to do this, at least that he’s taught,” and that it may “take more time with them,” “they may need more “encouragement” or “positive reinforcement, but it’s important to “steer them away from the ‘no, no, no!’ you’re doing all this wrong to maybe not talking about what they’re doing wrong but really what they’re doing right.” Instead of focusing on the negatives, Messina redirects them constantly “to turn that light bulb on and keep these kids happy.”
Jeff Messina feels that teaching special needs children is important because “some of these kids might get lost in other sports or they can’t really be in a team sport because they could be slowing the rest of the team down” and jiu-jitsu provides an even playing field for them. When discussing the progress of his special needs students Messina has noticed tangible results for both children and parents. According to Messina, “the main improvement is their confidence and their social ability to communicate with the other people. Here, I think, because everyone starts out in jiu-jitsu new and not quite sure what to do it kind of puts things on an even playing field. So I think the kids in class are more accepting to a child that might have one of these disabilities then maybe they might be on the playground or in a normal classroom setting.” He also told TXMMA, “the discipline and the hard work that they get training, the process of humbling a kid and giving them order, structure and discipline definitely translates into the home life and school life from kids to adults.”
When asked if there are any real benefits to training in BJJ or special needs kids Dr. De Paz told TXMMA there are “no direct studies that show that jiu-jitsu or martial arts specifically have an impact, but one study of autistic children learning karate forms showed that the activity helped decrease stereotypical behaviors thanks in part to the repetitive motions of practicing katas.” Despite the absence of research Dr. De Paz believes “one important thing kids get out of jiu-jitsu is interacting with others so when BJJ class becomes a family event where parents and children train together at a gym those benefits are hard to measure but can only be positive in the end.”
TXMMA encourages parents of children with autism and ADHD to consider giving jiu-jitsu a try, but to do so responsibly by consulting with a doctor to find out if children with their particular diagnoses could benefit from enrolling in a BJJ academy.