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Taekwondo for Kids with Special Needs

Most parents long for their child with special needs to be accepted as just “one of the kids.” That’s becoming easier, as more opportunities are available for children with disabilities to take part in activities alongside their typical peers.
Mary Nero, chief instructor at Keller ATA Black Belt Academy, first started working with students with disabilities at a Taekwondo school in New Jersey. A mother came in with a 5-year-old son who had PDD–NOS, an autism spectrum disorder, thinking martial arts might be good for him.
Nero did some research and worked with the boy one-on-one for six months, eventually easing him into traditional classes. “It was amazing to see him grow,” she says. “He went from struggling to focus and remember the moves to being able to follow along with my other students.”
When Nero opened her own academy in Texas in 2008, she decided to offer special ability classes. It took an accidental discovery to unlock the key for learning with one student who had severe autism. At first, Nero says, the boy was “climbing on the trophy case, running all over the mats, and we couldn’t get him to remember the moves at all.” She and her instructors tried singing the moves – anything they could think of. Then they observed that he loved pop music and had excellent recall of artists and songs.
“We decided to work with that, and that was it,” Nero says. “He will do a move and say the name of the first name of the singer, then another move and say their last name, another move, the title of their song. It worked wonders, and that’s how he remembered all of the forms.” The experience taught her that every child learns differently, and that sometimes it takes trial and error to find what helps each student.
Jenny Richter noticed that her son Dan, who has Down syndrome, appeared to need an outlet for his aggression. Richter had a challenging time finding an activity that suited him until she met Nero and learned about Taekwondo, a martial art with origins in Korea.
Dan started in the Special Abilities Class, where he was mixed with other students with Down syndrome and autism, but when Nero noticed he wasn’t challenging himself, she moved him with the “regular” students. Dan began to flourish, even with the traditional forms, which involve memorization of each move in a specific sequence. “This is probably the hardest for him,” Richter says, “although he has memorized 81 moves!”
He also participates in sparring – controlled matches between two opponents that are judged. “At first I was concerned that this might make Dan aggressive,” Richter says, “but it hasn’t. Ms. Mary talks to the students about not using their moves unless they are in class.”
To date, Dan has competed in three championship tournaments in Little Rock and is ranked in the top three in the world in Forms, Traditional Weapons, Creative Weapons and Sparring in his Special Abilities category. Children and adults with special needs compete in a ring next to their typical peers during these competitions, making it an inclusive experience.
Dan has also learned about respect through Keller ATA’s Leadership Class. Though the class consists mostly of typical students, Nero opens it to any child in whom she discerns leadership potential – regardless of ability (or disability). These students learn how to assist with other classes, and they discuss loyalty, goal-setting, self-control and helping others.
Nero believes in speaking openly about the needs a student may have as long as there is a reason to discuss it with the class. “It’s all in how you present it,” she says. “I’ll tell my nondisabled students, ‘He’s just like you, but his brain works a little different. Just be patient.’ And that’s all I need to do. We all have more in common than not.”

To learn more about Keller ATA or Taekwondo, visit kellerata.com.