A small family - struggling to stay together and make ends meet, desperate to find effective treatment for their precious autistic son, exiled to virtual seclusion at home due to his hypersensitivity to noise, fast movements, and changing environments - was finally released when their son successfully adopted coping strategies; learned to focus, speak calmly, and move from one activity to the next with ease; got better control of his limbs; gained self-confidence and even pride for his achievements; and showed the first hopeful signs of a fulfilling, self-reliant future.
The behavioral effects of martial arts training on many children with autism and related conditions are truly astounding, and the relief their families experience is truly a game-changer. Research studies are very limited, but evidence and reports of astounding results - where customary treatments have produced fewer improvements - are widespread and growing throughout the ATA. Leadership NOW is honored to introduce three everyday heroes, true leaders who are meeting the (N)eeds of (O)ur (W)orld through Songahm Martial Arts training.
Effective leaders generally multiply their power by joining or recruiting competent, like-minded people to handle more tasks. Connecting with passionate, qualified people is often a challenge, but when a champion emerges for a certain cause, people with "the right stuff" will rally to him or her and contribute in diverse ways. This is the story of Mrs. Barbie Lauver, Master Leland Brandon, 6DB, and Master Nominee Mr. Travis Dillow, 6DB, three motivated educators whose combined efforts are dramatically improving the lives of autistic children and their families in Nevada.
Ms. Lauver became a champion for her son's cause and then "a voice" for other parents of children with autism who were not developing adequately in the public school system. Aiming high and surrounding herself with other knowledgeable, passionate people, in 2007 she founded and now serves as president of The Achievement Academy in Henderson, Nevada. Five years prior she co-founded the regional Asperger's Syndrome/High Functioning Autism Support Group of Las Vegas to provide information and support to families with children with autism, and now serves as the 2010-2011 Chair of the Employment Subcommittee for the Nevada Commission on Autism Spectrum Disorders. The Achievement Academy is an accredited private school designed specifically for students with Asperger's Syndrome, High Functioning Autism, Attention Deficit Disorder, and similar challenges.
Ms. Lauver and Mr. Dillow, owner of ATA Martial Arts / Karate for Kids in Henderson, were introduced at a meeting of For Kids Now, a regional charity that provides funding for children's causes, by board member Master Brandon, owner of ATA Martial Arts / Karate for Kids in Las Vegas. Master Brandon and Mr. Dillow have worked tirelessly and are well-known in the Las Vegas Valley for their volunteerism, community service, school outreach, and other charitable endeavors. Four years ago, when Ms. Lauver was preparing to open The Achievement Academy, Master Brandon helped her staff meet the state's restraint training requirements. Her son John Matthew, who has High Functioning Autism, began training at Master Brandon's studio and showing remarkable progress controlling several symptoms; his self-esteem, coordination, and behavior improved, his outlook and personality opened up, and with them, his whole future.
"When I took John matthew for his first exposure to the studio, he actually cried in the office. The first couple of weeks after I signed him up, he just trembled he was so afraid to walk in the door. But they knew exactly what to do, the 'baby steps' he needed to take in order to walk out in front of people and do the Taekwondo moves," says Ms. Lauver, referring to the social anxiety her son is gradually overcoming. "I found immediately that the instructors totally 'get' autism, and that was exciting!"
Since the start of the spring semester, Mr. Dillow has been visiting the Achievement Academy almost every week, introducing the structure, language, and basics of Songahm Taekwondo to a group of 10-15 kids with autism in Grades 1-8, with tangible, laudable results. He brags on their progress like they were his best students; in many ways they are.
"Other instructors ask, what's the secret to teaching kids with special needs? I tell them there is no secret, just teach Songahm Taekwondo the way you were taught. It's the structure, the life skills, personal victory, and knowing every kid is different," says Mr. Dillow. "The system is already done!" With typical humility, he gives little credit to his 18 years of experience studying and teaching Taekwondo throughout the southwest.
He makes a sound point: there are critical similarities in the educational approaches taken by the faculty of The Achievement Academy and by Master Brandon, Mr. Dillow, indeed by all instructors in the ATA, which might contribute to the successes observed so far. For example, the ATA concept of "personal victory," that every step in the right direction - even sincere trying - is a 'win', allows instructors to modify or reinforce behaviors with the praise-correct-praise model and condition the student's self-image for incremental learning. A second example is that both academic and martial arts curriculums are taught and challenged at the "ability" level: training is not a race; the pace of progress depends on the individual. (This is a key difference between martial arts and other organized sports.) Another similarity between the academy's and ATA's curriculums are the Life Skills - the terms (like "Perseverance" and "Respect"), definitions, discussions, and continuous focus on those traits of leaders - that enable the child's parents and other educators to express, to be understood, and to expect the right behaviors.
"Autism affects the whole family. It's a 24/7 job," says Ms. Lauver. "The life skills and leadership skills that ATA teaches in class are tools we parents can use at home that really make things easier. The respect from my boys - for the first time in their lives they say 'yes ma'am' and 'yes sir'. The improvements have even transferred to the academic side: I remind John matthew to show perseverance when he's struggling with math homework, and he says, 'You really believe in me, don't you?' Absolutely!"
"These kids experienced progress, the type of progress often taken for granted by other kids," says John Greany, assistant professor of physical therapy who in 2010 conducted a small study of martial arts and autism for the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. The study recorded a number of significant physical and mental improvements in subjects in just 11 weeks of training. Fred Nicklaus, the instructor in the study, adds "Martial arts helps these children communicate and talk more, and they are more willing to try new things."
Physical education is particularly challenging for many children with autism, due to both physical limitations and the side effect of certain medications. Consequently their coordination and general fitness levels may be below average, restricting their opportunities to exercise, play and socialize with peers their age, leaving few productive outlets for their energy. Martial arts, however, can provide fun workouts of varying intensity so that gradual improvement in physical conditioning eventually opens doors to more peer activities for those children.
"Some of our kids [at the academy] now have the coordination to ride bikes with friends in the neighborhood, when they couldn't before [Taekwondo training]," says Ms. Lauver. "The kids love the training, and they love the sense of belonging to a successful group. Unlike other sports, in ATA children with autism are not sidelined, never the last one picked, never yelled at by teammates for costing the game. Parents are sometimes hesitant to let their kids practice karate, but soon they see the benefits and love it too."
Public education is just one reason Master Brandon and Master Nominee Mr. Dillow involve themselves in many community improvement projects. They seize every chance to dispel myths about Taekwondo and inform others about the potential benefits they and their family members can realize, no matter what their conditions.
"One parent (of an autistic child) told me that ATA training gave her family 'the best bang for the buck' out of all the therapies they tried," says Ms. Lauver. "Another told me it (enrolling their autistic child in ATA) was the best thing they ever did, seeing the fastest advancement in the least amount of time. I know why: the occupational therapy, the sensory, the social - it truly is a 'one stop' place for all the needs of our kids."
"Martial arts training is probably the last thing an autistic child's parent would think of, but the results we're seeing are just incredible, so it's up to us (ATA instructors) to help educate them so we can help those kids," Mr. Dillow says. "Obviously there is the potential to enroll new members, but the real focus is on changing lives. It's what ATA does best."
"I don't think there's anything more rewarding than seeing a child with special abilities achieve goals through the ATA," says Mr. Dillow. If his instruction efforts continue as they have, he will undoubtedly be rewarded for years to come through the remarkable improvement of many lives under his leadership.
In addition to operating and instructing at his school, Mr. Dillow follows the lead of his mentor, Master Brandon, by investing much time and effort into 'doing good' for his community. He is supported by wife Robin, 5DB, a national weapons champion, and daughters Jesse, 2DB, and Sami, 2DB. He also fills demanding leadership roles in the ATA as Regional Chief of Tournaments and Regional Certification Coordinator.
"Being 'too busy' is not a good excuse to not do things that make such a difference," says Mr. Dillow. "The fact is, it's a real honor to get to use our Songahm Taekwondo skills to change lives!"
Like disciplined martial artists and progressive companies, The Achievement Academy maintains a policy of continuous self-improvement. Ms. Laruver's goal is to add one grade level beyond 8th each year until her son is graduated and more students follow, a goal which she and her staff are proudly on track to achieve. She is laying groundwork to help her son become a happy, productive, well-rounded and self-reliant human being in the work force and community. Master Brandon and Mr. Dillow plan to continue their work with parents and the children who have Autism Spectrum Disorders through The Achievement Academy and For Kids Now. Both gentlemen are considering adding a special class to their weekly schedules tailored to maximize the developmental benefits gained by these students and families.
For more information about Autism Spectrum Disorders, visit The Achievement Academy, The Asperger's Syndrome/High Functioning Autism Support Group of Las Vegas, or The Autism Society. You may also find a Songahm Martial Arts school near you. Leadership NOW salutes, congratulates and thanks Ms. Lauver, Master Brandon and Master Nominee Dillow for their outstanding work in meeting the needs of our world.