Martial arts provides physical, mental outlet for autistic child

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Thomas Matthews, 10, practices his roundhouse kick during his private karate lesson with Master J.D. Rifkin at Rifkin Martial Arts on May 14.

COLUMBIA — In the aisles of Hy-Vee, Thomas Matthews stopped.

What's he doing, the 10-year-old's mother, Kimberly Matthews, wondered.


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Then she saw. Thomas was bowing.

In the middle of the grocery store, after just starting a trial period at Rifkin Professional Karate Center, Thomas saw Master J.D. Rifkin, his martial arts instructor. Rifkin was wearing regular clothes, not the uniform Thomas was used to seeing.

But Thomas bowed accordingly.

"I hadn't seen him really take hold of something like that," Matthews said. She knew then that the lessons would have to continue.

Thomas has a high functioning form of autism spectrum disorder. He has trouble in social situations. He won't make eye contact. When he talks to people, he may look the other direction, or at most at the top of their heads.

But involvement with sports has helped with this. Like with Rifkin, Thomas respects his coaches and opens up to them.

Matthews, who has stressed the importance of physical activity for Thomas since he was 3, has also seen it help with his poor muscle tone, what she sometimes calls "lazy muscles."

Low muscle tone is a condition associated with autism, which can interfere with the development of motor skills. It was hard for Thomas to sit up in a chair. He would lean on his mother.

But after he started physical activity, he stood a little taller.

In MU's Homecoming parade two years ago, Tiger Academy of Gymnastics joined the bands and floats in the march. When they got to a certain point, members did cartwheels for the crowd.

Thomas did the first one.

He had started out in Adaptive Gymnastics, designed for children with special needs, when he was 3, while also attending a ballet class on MU's campus. But when his sister, Malinda Matthews, now 8, joined Tiger Academy a year later, Matthews asked if Thomas could join "regular gymnastics," too.

They said yes.

"He learned how to do a cartwheel," Matthews said with a smile. "He wasn't the best, but he did it."

And when the crowd cheered at this accomplishment in the Homecoming parade, Thomas did another, waving his hands, urging the crowd for more.

He loves putting on a good show.

"Feast your eyes," Thomas said Tuesday at his lesson at Rifkin Professional Karate Center. Two walls of mirrors surrounded the padded floor where Thomas practiced kicking and punching with Rifkin. He wanted to show what he could do.

Thomas started lessons with Rifkin almost by chance. When Tiger Academy moved from the Hearnes Center to the Mizzou Gymnastics and Golden Girls Practice Facility last year, they had to eliminate some classes, including the boys class, Matthews said.

Matthews, always wanting that physical activity for Thomas, drove down a road she doesn't usually take to sign her son up for new classes, the road on which Rifkin Professional Karate Center is located.

"I just happened to see the place," Matthews said.

Rifkin, who has more than 26 years of martial arts experience and has worked with children with special needs before, agreed to let Thomas give it a try.

Starting out in group classes and then moving to private one-on-one sessions, Thomas been practicing martial arts with Rifkin ever since.

"Punch to where?" Rifkin asked Thomas during the past week's class. "What's this?" He pointed to his chin, helping Thomas aim there.

Cars drove by outside, visible from the window taking up one of the walls in the practice facility. Reflections formed on two other walls, creating distractions as Thomas tried to focus.

"Don't look at yourself in the mirror," Rifkin said to Thomas.

Matthews said she wishes she could cover the mirrored walls with some kind of black material. The really hard part for children with autism, she said, is maintaining attention.

"It's the nature of the beast," Rifkin said. 

Although Rifkin doesn't want Thomas looking in the mirrors to "fix his hair," the mirrors are useful for looking at stances and form and correcting them.

But Thomas, like many children with autism, doesn't like to look at faces, even his own.

When he brushed his teeth when he was younger, Matthews had to put a strip of paper on the mirror to cover Thomas' face, only allowing his teeth to show. 

But martial arts gives Thomas practice with focusing, something Rifkin thinks will improve with repetition.

"Sometimes he'll be on the next stretch before I am," Rifkin said. "Routine is everything for him."

And when Thomas messes up, he knows it.

He buried his face in his hands. He shouted out, disappointed he had done the move wrong.

"Is that what we do when we mess up?" Rifkin said.

Thomas shook his head. "I'll do better."

Rifkin is tough, Matthews said, and Thomas is learning to work through that frustration.

"He doesn't give out stripes, you've got to earn them," Matthews said.

With all the focus required, maybe this isn't Thomas' thing. He recently participated in a 5K race at Blue Ridge Elementary School, and he's now old enough for Special Olympics, where there's a wide variety of sports to choose from.

Would Thomas want to do something else?

Not until he gets a belt.

Thomas thinks he can do it if he just "work(s) even harder," he said.

At the end of last week's practice session, Thomas walked to the edge of the padded floor. He sometimes forgets to do it, but this time, he knew exactly what to do.

Just as he did that day just after meeting Rifkin at Hy-Vee, he turned to Rifkin and bowed.

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