In the spring of 2011, I found myself browsing flyers and websites, trying to come up with some productive things for the guys to do over the summer. SB was 6 at the time, and had been receiving ABA therapy for 4 years and was making good progress. He was finishing up his kindergarten year in a mainstream classroom, and it had gone fairly well, much to my relief. AB was 4, and did not yet have a diagnosis. He was doing great in preschool, and at this time we had no suspicions that an autism diagnosis was yet to come for him. I heard about an Adapted Tae Kwon Do program in our area for kids with special needs, and decided that might be a cool activity to try.
I enrolled SB in the Adapted class, and asked if his younger brother could join the class, too. I didn’t think he needed the accommodation at the time, but he was so little that I was hoping it would be OK. Thankfully, the Tae Kwon Do studio obliged. I remember thinking at the time, “Well, SB did so fabulously in a regular kindergarten class, I bet he won’t need the Adapted Tae Kwon Do class for very long. We’ll do the Adapted class over the summer, and by the time school starts, he’ll be doing so well that we’ll be able to move him to a regular Tae Kwon Do class.”
HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Boy, was I naïve and stupid. Two and a half years later, both boys are still enrolled in the Adapted class. And it has been absolutely wonderful for them.
The first person that I met at our initial Tae Kwon Do class in May of 2011 was RM, who has a triple-whammy of credentials for teaching this class: She is a Tae Kwon Do instructor, she is a Board Certified ABA therapist, and she also has a son with autism. I immediately knew that the guys would be in good hands. I sat down to watch the class, and slowly became horrified by what unfolded. Neither of my guys seemed to be able to participate or pay attention at all to what was going on in the class. Both needed constant redirection, could not focus on anything, and were repeatedly wandering the room and having to be led back to the group. My heart sank. This was not the first time we had tried an activity that had failed, but it WAS the first time that an activity specifically for special needs children was a bust. The other kids in the class needed occasional redirection, but not like my two. I think I probably frowned and sighed a lot, and was ready to tell RM, “thanks anyway for trying” at the end of the class.
She came straight to me when the class was over and said, “They did great!” Huh? Did she forget which kids were mine? She assured me that none of the kids in the Adapted class participate well the first day, and that it takes all of them time to figure out the routine. “Bring them back next week! I promise, they’ll get better. And in a few months, another new kid will come to the class and will be unfocused and wander off a lot. Then you’ll realize that yours looked like that at first and you’ll see how much better they are doing.” She gave me a copy of a visual schedule of the structure of the class, which SB was thrilled to have, and sent us on our way.
We decided to come back. And like ALL things with my children, the progress was so slow that we didn’t really notice it at first. But RM was right. As the months rolled on, new kids joined the class, and it reminded me that mine were not wandering off so much anymore. My guys were actually starting to participate a good portion of the time. They had good days and bad days, but they were generally engaged in the class. And most importantly, they LIKED it! So we kept going.
Time went on and both guys continued to make progress in Tae Kwon Do. Painfully slow progress, but by now we were used to that. That’s the only kind of progress we get here at the Burts house! AB got his diagnosis, and I realized that he had been fitting right in with the other students in the class all along.
In the Adapted program, students earn new belts after attending a certain number of lessons. They don’t have to do anything special to earn their belts like the students do in the regular Tae Kwon Do classes. The belts look different (striped rather than solid) but my guys didn’t know the difference, and were happy every time they got a new one. We slowly went through the entire set of Adapted belts, and then about 6 months ago, (2 years after our first class) RM approached me about putting them into the regular belt track. They could keep coming to the Adapted classes, but would start earning the same belts that the regular students were earning. There were already several Adapted students doing this, so we decided to give it a try.
This meant that the guys would have to stay after class for a few minutes each week and work one-on-one with an instructor to see if they had mastered certain skills. When the skills were mastered, they got a piece of tape on their belt. When they got three stripes of tape, they could try for the next belt at a formal belt testing ceremony held only once a month. At first, staying after class didn’t go well at ALL. Both guys were so enthralled by watching the next class that they just could not focus on what their instructor was asking them to do. (In hindsight, this is somewhat my fault. I should have explained to them better what was going on, since this was new to them and they didn’t understand why they had to keep working after the class was over.) I was starting to wonder if we had made a mistake to even try this, when I finally asked if the instructor could take them into a different room to evaluate them. I thought that maybe if they weren’t so distracted by the next class, they might be able to show what they had learned. This made a huge difference, and they both eventually earned their 3 stripes of tape, a half-stripe at a time every couple of weeks. It was incredibly tedious. But with 3 full stripes earned for each of them, they finally got to participate in Belt Testing Day!
In addition to showing off several punches and kicks, the guys also had to memorize a few terms and definitions. My smart husband made up songs to help the guys remember the definitions by putting them to the tune of Happy Birthday and Frere Jacques. This worked brilliantly, and the memorizing was easy. Our only worry was that they would sing the answers during the belt test. And then I thought that might not be so terrible!
On the day of the test, there were 7 kids lined up on the mat to test for the Advanced White Belt – 6 boys and one very dedicated, Type-A little girl who did everything perfectly. I’d guess that they were all between 6 and 8 years old, except for one adorable, short little guy who couldn’t have been more than 4. My guys were the only ones wearing Adapted belts, which were white with a red stripe down the middle. Everyone else was wearing the standard plain, white belt. Knowing that this test was now out of my hands and that I couldn’t help them anymore was a scary feeling. I have played the clarinet in front of thousands of people on many, many occasions, yet I really can’t remember ever being this nervous before. I stood in the corner of the room with my camera, wondering if I should even be taking pictures of this. What if they didn’t pass? Would I want to delete all the pictures? Or worse, what if one passed and one didn’t? What kind of drama would THAT create in my house? As I was thinking all of these things, I heard someone say, “Breathe!” “What?” I asked. “Are you talking to me?” “Yes!” exclaimed one of the instructors. “You looked like you had stopped breathing!” Oh. Maybe I had.
Did they perform perfectly for the test? Oh, HELL no! But none of the kids did. (Except for Miss Type-A – she nailed it!) I think that AB kicked with the wrong leg every single time. Both of them kept forgetting to look in the direction of their punches, even after being reminded repeatedly. I think I was still not really breathing regularly until I saw Master L cut off 7 pieces of tape. He was going to pass them all! I was so relieved. And the guys were thrilled! SB showed his excitement the way he always does – by jumping up and down and shouting loudly at inappropriate moments. “I got my fourth stripe! I got my fourth stripe!” This didn’t seem like the time to remind him to use an indoor voice. I noticed later when I looked at their score sheets that they didn’t get stellar grades – SB got a B- and AB got a C. But they passed!
I also learned from their score sheets that we had sewn the Korean flag patch on both of their uniforms upside-down. Oops. I need to
get out my needle and thread and fix have my Mom fix that the next time I see her. (Who am I kidding? I can’t sew!)
As I looked around the studio at all the families, I thought about something a friend said to me a few months back. I was talking with him about how jealous I still get of other parents with their typical kids doing typical activities in a seemingly effortless manner. I wish I didn’t get so jealous, but I do. I see others posting pictures on Facebook of their kids being successful at soccer, or baseball, or piano, or gymnastics, or whatever. And I just wish that things weren’t so damned HARD for my kids. And he said, “But doesn’t that make their successes that much sweeter?” As I looked around at all the kids testing for new belts, and at their parents who had brought them, I realized that yes, this success WAS sweeter for my guys than it was for any of them. I’m not saying that those other kids didn’t work hard and deserve their success, and I’m not saying that their parents aren’t proud of them. But those parents didn’t have to wait 2 and a half YEARS for their kids to earn the first belt. And when it takes that long, and when you have to overcome all the things my guys have had to overcome, it really does feel pretty freakin’ sweet.
I hope this story will inspire others with autism (or others who parent someone with autism) that children with ASD really can do anything if they work hard and have the right supports. However, it’s going to be on their own timetable, because that kind of sweetness just can’t be rushed!
If you are in the Northern Virginia area and want to check out the Tae Kwon Do studio we go to, here is their link: