Martial Arts and the Autism Spectrum

Fightland Blog

By Sarah Kurchak

Jo Redman is a highly decorated kickboxer from England. Since she began training at 13, she’s amassed multiple world championships and national championships (including the WCK World Champion in 2011, 2012 and  2013, and the WAKO British Champion in 2013 and 2014) and received an MAI (Martial Arts Illustrated) Hall of Fame Award.

Just as Redman was starting to find her footing as a competitive athlete, she received a pair of diagnoses that helped her to really figure out who she was as a person and a martial artist. After a lifetime of feeling like she was somehow different from her teammates and her peers, and never quite fitting in, Redman was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in early adulthood.  An autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s is characterized by social impairments, problems with nonverbal communication, sensory sensitivities, repetitive behavior patterns, and an often narrow and extremely focused area of interests that’s known is autism circles as “special interests.” Earlier this year, at the age of 28, she was also diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorderbetter known as ADHDwhich is a fairly common comorbidity of autism.

Now, when she’s not competing or training, Redman faces something that most people would consider far more intimidating than an opponent who quite literally wants to kick your ass: public speaking. The champ and autism ambassador delivers talks on her life with AS and ADHD and her success as an athlete.

I was taken with Redman’s story not just because it’s inspirationalalthough it certainly is thatbut because it feels so familiar. My own background in striking sports (Muay Thai in my case) has been both far less extensive and far less successful than hers, but there is one major similarity: I, too, was diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult, in the middle of my training.

Finding out that I was on the autism spectrum certainly helped me to understand a number of issues that I’d been struggling with in martial arts. My problems with coordination, and my less than perfect processing speed in the heat of sparring, for example, were hallmarks of Asperger’s. The more I worked on my skills and myself, though, the more I realized that my autism was something far more complex than a simple impediment that I had to overcome to be good at my sport. There are plenty of challenges that come with autism spectrum disorders in martial arts (and in life), but there are also some unique benefits. A neurological penchant for patterns and repetition comes in fairly handy when you’re trying to learn complex combinations, for example.

Curious to learn more about how Redman experienced and thought about the relationship between autism and martial arts, I reached out to ask her about the ways in which Asperger’s and ADHD help and hinder her as a competitive kickboxer. We conducted the interview via e-mail, because people on the autism spectrum aren’t huge fans of talking on the phone.

Fightland: How did you get into kickboxing? 
Jo Redman: I started kickboxing when I was 13. My dad took me and my little brother to our local BCKA club as he thought it would help my confidence. At the time I was undiagnosed with Asperger's and it took me about 2 years before I actually opened up and spoke to anyone there. I loved it straight away and set myself goals to achieve my black belt, fight for England and be the best in the worldaimed high. There was no looking back once I started.

A number of Asperger’s experts have recommended martial arts for people with Asperger’s. Part of that is because we’re often bullied and could use the self-defense. But another reason is that the individual and disciplined nature of martial arts and the routine involved appeal to Aspergian sensibilities. Do you agree with that assessment?
I was bullied a little growing up and I think that kickboxing has given me an inner self confidence. I do agree that the discipline and routine of martial arts does appeal to those with Asperger's. Personally it is the most fixed thing in my weekly routine as I am self employed so I usually tell what day it is by which class I attend and if I miss a class I feel confused. I hate missing training. But from a competitive perspective the focus that training and preparing for big competitions brings really appeals to meeverything gets more structured including diet and after a big competition I feel lost. I am also very drawn to the inclusion of being part of a team, the BCKA who I train with are like a family and I feel I can be myself there. Martial arts taught me I could be successful and also provide an outlet for my excess energy and daily frustration.

Did it come naturally to you? Did you have to work to develop the proper coordination? I know when I started Muay Thai, I spent a fair amount of time falling down because my legs simply refused to do what I wanted them to do while I was concentrating on my hands.
Fighting felt and feels completely natural to me, I seem to be able to read people when fighting, which I cannot do when not fighting. I do have some problems with my coordination and getting new specific movement drills downI have to find my way to do it sometimes even if it isn't exactly what is taught. I find I struggle to copy from mirror image in kickboxing class, so learning kung fu sets in a class setting has so far proved too difficult for me. We do a lot of linework in our club to practice techniques and I struggled a lot with steps and half steps and remembering which hand to start with, but I think some of these problems can be quite common for everyone. I have learned to watch feet and hands and to try and break the movements down, something I need to do with tasks. My job as a sport massage therapist has helped this as it is my job to assess how well things are moving, so I pick up on movements more now.

How do you think Asperger’s has hindered your kickboxing? How do you think the combination of Asperger’s and ADHD challenged you? 
My speed and reactions which I feel are attributable to ADHD were certainly a strength. But ADHD was also a challenge because I would get bored easily by mundane things, I struggle to do my own training in my own time on my own. A strength attributable to Asperger’s was my desire and drive to improve, my willingness to carry out a technique I enjoyed repetitively until I had mastered it. I also have incredible attention to detail, I filmed my fights to break down where I went wrong and then would go back and improve each thing one by one. Some of the additional challenges my Asperger's brings is sometimes in deciphering instructions when I fight and working out what people mean and asking when I'm not sureI suffer in silence. Then of course there is the whole thing of when I am more stressed and anxious I struggle a lot and it is not always understood why I behave in the ways I do and in those instances it is difficult to explain.

People with Asperger’s often have a different processing speed than people who aren’t on the spectrum. Is that an issue for you at all when it comes to sparring or competing?
I actually find my processing speed can be superior to other people when sparring and competing. I think it is part of ADHD, I enjoy the need to react quickly and be constantly judging the next move. I often feel a few steps ahead, thinking of what I want to do and making the moves to facilitate that. However there have been occasions where I have been really stressed and overloaded and these have made me feel slowed up. Some of the competition environments can be very over-stimulating and overloading so I have to be careful to make sure this doesn't affect my fighting performance.

What about sensory issues? Do you have any sensory sensitivities and, if so, how do you work to deal with them in competitions, which have, at least in my experience, a pretty high risk of sensory overload?
Yes I have some sensory issues. I am sensitive to bright lights and sounds. I don't like strong flavors. I also struggle to pay attention more when there is so much on view in my environment. I have been experimenting a lot with ways to deal with them. When I was diagnosed, I realized that I did have sensory issues but nobody ever really said “Why don't you try this or that?” until recently so it just never occurred to me. It probably seems a little strange to some of my team mates now as I never really used these methods before. I have always used iPod, etc. in competitive environments but it actually made little difference so I am about to try iPod with ear defenders over the top. I have used baseball caps to shield lights and have recently begun to use sunglasses in environments where I know lights could be a problem. I sometimes struggle with sound in class and have been using ear plugs to reduce some of the painful background noise which has worked very well. When traveling internationally for competitions I am usually medicated to keep calm and reduce the possibility of a melt down or shut down. I find the medication takes the stressful feeling away but I still behave similarly, I just don't feel stressed.

How does Asperger’s complicate getting to and from competitions?
I need support to attend competitions even those in the UK. I struggle to communicate my basic needs which I had always been too embarrassed to admit. When highly anxious I can tip over very quickly and it helps to know I have a person who really understands my needs. I certainly cannot travel internationally alone, as I am medicated in airports someone needs to be responsible for me. Being away from home is challenging for me, there is a lot of stress and anxiety that is often invisible to others. Being undiagnosed until adulthood I learnt how to keep things suppressed, so having support allows me to relax and know I will be ok.

When we were setting up this interview, you told me that your psychologist commented that people with ADHD could be drawn to combat sport due to how reactive you need to be when fighting. He also said the combination of Asperger's and ADHD lend themselves very well to success in my sport for different reasons. Can you go into a little more detail? Do you agree?
When diagnosed with ADHD the psychologist said that the combination of ADHD and Asperger's will have contributed to the success I have had in my sport, in becoming a world champion. The repetition, perfectionism and focus Asperger's gives combined with the need to be on the go constantly that comes with ADHD which helps with my reactions and I do feel I judge and react to things quicker. To be honest with my fighting it just feels natural. I don't understand why everyone doesn't achieve what I do, I just go and do it.

A number of people on the autism spectrum have a higher than average pain tolerance. Do you have a high pain tolerance and, if so, how has that helped your competition?
Yes I do have a high pain tolerance and I have difficulty expressing what I feel. I walked around at school with a broken arm for about a week. I have fought injured many times sometimes consciously and sometimes not realizing how severe an injury was which means that now I am very cautious if I feel painmy physio knows if I flinch it is a bad sign. It can be helpful for injury rehab as I will be able to tolerate exercises etc sooner but it also means there is more likelihood of reinjuring at this timeit is a fine balance.

Would you consider kickboxing a special interest of yours? If so, has that intense level of focus helped you at all? And how does ADHD work with and/or against that?
Kickboxing is definitely my special interest, although my interest is limited only to my experience and the performance of myself and my team. The intense level of focus has definitely helped me to improve my performance, I study my fights and pick out what to improve on. ADHD enjoys kickboxing so I think we all usually get on together to some extent here! The only problems I have are when I am having a more challenging day it can be harder to focus. If I have had a long day of having to sustain concentration with little moving around it will either be really good for training or really bad.

Jo Redman is sponsored by SEN Magazine and Tough Furniture Ltd.



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