Martial Arts and Executive Function on the Autism Spectrum

Recent work on the benefits of martial arts training for children with ASD.

Posted Jul 17, 2019

Those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) face numerous challenges and deficits. These include social communication, stereotyped repetitive behaviors, and "executive function," or the constellation of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and the ability to regulate behavioral urges. There are numerous studies indicating that physical activity in the form of martial arts training could be beneficial to executive function generally (for example, in older adults) and help with stereotyped behaviors and communication in ASD. Often effects on executive function have been implied but not directly assessed in an intervention.

Recently Janice Phungand Wendy Goldberg (University of California Irvine) performed an intervention study involving adapted mixed martial arts training delivered to a group of school-aged (8-11-year-olds) children with diagnosed ASD which was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. The training consisted of 26 forty-five minute classes over a 13-week period. Technical training was adapted to the needs of each participant and was given in a "traditional" format, meaning an "emphasis on character development and self-control in addition to physical training."

After the training, the martial arts group had improved executive function compared to a wait-list control. In particular, the training enhanced behavior and emotional regulation. This rigorous study provides compelling additional evidence that folks on the autism spectrum can benefit significantly from carefully applied martial arts training that includes an emphasis on physical, philosophical, and behavioral development.

I reached out lead author Janice Phung to get additional context and background. Her comments provide some interesting anecdotal evidence for the positive power of martial arts in daily living.

EPZ: I'm guessing you have some personal experience in martial arts. How did you get started, and what have been the positive outcomes?

JP: I trained some Shaolin Kung Fu as a child, but did not really jump into the martial arts world until I was an undergrad at UCLA, where I took my first Muay Thai class at the John Wooden Center. Since then, I have been involved with the World Thai Boxing Association founded by Ajarn (Master) Chai Sirisute. Training martial arts over the last decade of my life has been instrumental for my physical and mental health. Frankly, I would not have survived undergrad and graduate school if not for the personal skills that I gained through martial arts training, and the support and camaraderie that I received from the martial arts community. I learned about discipline and respect, both on and off the mat. 

EPZ: How did the idea for this project come about?

JP: The idea came about after speaking with one of the coaches who had been teaching private lessons to a child with autism. Through his and the parents' anecdotal reports of the child's improvements, an inclusive martial arts class for children with developmental disabilities was launched with the help of the academy coaches and Robin Yates of CF Dance Academy, who previously launched a dance program for children with autism. About a year later, I decided to design a research study to empirically measure these outcomes, and from there, I collaborated with the coaches to redesign the curriculum to now target the study outcomes. We recruited new children to be participants in the study and students of the class. 

EPZ: What are some specific recommendations you’d make to parents and teachers about the applications of your work?

JP: I would say to get involved. Children with autism spend so much of their day engaging in "work" (e.g., school, therapy, etc.), but we often neglect the importance of having children stay active and have fun. Martial arts is not only physically engaging, but as my research supports, cognitively engaging as well. Children with autism should have opportunities to be physically active, to socialize with a diverse range of other children, and to engage in hobbies that are challenging yet fun. It also provides children the opportunity to set and reach obtainable goals, and these skills have important implications for other areas of the child's life as well. In order to support the development of the "whole child," parents and teachers should get their children involved in such activities.

EPZ: Will you be following up with other martial arts intervention studies?

JP: The future of this work involves examining other types of activities that also have the potential to improve cognitive functioning in children with ASD (e.g., yoga, sports, dance, etc.). I also plan to follow up with other martial arts intervention studies. The present study had a lot of different components (e.g., the mindfulness, peers, increasing complexity); it would be important to isolate these components to see if they uniquely contribute to improving executive functioning. I am also interested in examining other domains of development in addition to executive functioning, such as social skills and physical improvements. Also, it's important to suggest that future work should oversample for girls to adjust for the fact that martial arts are traditionally a gendered activity that attracts more boys than girls. 

I look forward to future work that can help refine the application of martial arts training as an empowering and enabling activity for all. Martial arts can make the strong stronger but the real value and true importance is enhancing the functional ability of any and everyone who participates.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2019)