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Karate and Special Needs

I was totally unaware how karate can help children with certain types of special needs. This is my story of a steep learning curve that totally enlightened me on the benefits of Shotokan karate, and when taught by the right people, how it helped my daughter overcome her coordination difficulties.

Being born at 26 weeks, Sarah had a rough time in her first few months in this world. We were told that she had only 50-50 chance of survival and was on a ventilator for 3 weeks, spending nearly 3 months in total in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit before she was allowed home. We thought our worries were over. Then at the age of 6 she was diagnosed with dyspraxia. We had never heard of it before. When we were told it's a learning and coordination difficulty and that our beautiful girl will always struggle with physical activity, among other things, it nearly broke our hearts.

Struggle, she did. She couldn't even balance on one leg for a few seconds. While other children played hopscotch, Sarah only watched from a distance. While other children used skipping ropes, she was the only child in the playground just watching them skip. When other children threw balls at each other, hers dropped at her feet most of the time. For a parent, to see your child being alone in the playground while other children played, was heart-breaking.

Then someone mentioned martial arts. Martial arts? You mean like Bruce Lee? Or Karate Kid? With her difficulties, how on earth could she manage to do something like that? That was my first reaction. I dismissed the idea very quickly. It was just too ludicrous. We would have probably never tried it, if not for a short karate course at her pre-primary school. Sarah was one of only two girls who joined karate. All the rest were boys. I watched her the first day from a distance with apprehension. Will she fall? Will she get hit? Will she get hurt?

I was almost ready to stop it except for the fact that Sarah seems to enjoy it. It was then that we came across Clapham Karate Club while out walking one day. I almost walked past the small poster at Ursula Taylor School, when Sarah excitedly pointed it out to me. My initial reaction again was, "it's a proper club. It is not like a school karate club. I am not sure it is a good idea". But she insisted and I caved in.

The first evening was nerve wrecking. The class was huge. There were so many black belts. I was ready to take my little girl home and wrap her in cotton wool. However, within a few minutes, my worries were put at rest as Shihan McClagish and the Dan grades helped her ease in. And as I sat there watching her from a distance, I told myself - maybe she may never reach the next level, but I will let her train as long as she enjoys it. As we walked home, I asked her how she found it. “Mummy, I love it,” came back the response at once. “Sensei Saunders is so funny. He makes me laugh”. I realised then that this was not only a proper dojo but also one that treated little children with the support and empathy that they need.

That was more than seven years ago and the little girl with dyspraxia who couldn't balance for two seconds on one foot is gone. In her place is a confident fourteen-year-old in her white gi and a brown and white belt now, who can punch and kick as good as any other kid her age at her grade, and someone who enjoys training immensely. She still takes a little extra time to learn a new combination and a new kata and she still needs to continuously work on her kicks and occasionally still struggles with her balance. But she has come in leaps and bounds.

And as for me, it has indeed been an extra steep learning curve. I had never known that martial arts, and in this case, Shotokan karate specifically, can help a child with learning and coordination difficulties. And it is not just the physical side of karate that matters. More than the training, the grading and getting another new belt, as a parent, it is the twinkle in her eyes and the excitement in her voice when she says "Mummy, time to get ready for karate", that matters most. I owe it big time to CFTS and the Clapham Karate Club.

Maybe Sarah in the coming years may decide to try other things in life. Or maybe she will go on and fulfil her dream of getting a black belt someday. Either way, as a parent of a child with dyspraxia, I will always remember the lesson I learnt - that Shotokan karate, when taught by the right people, can do wonders for Special Needs children with certain learning difficulties.

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