For two hours a week, 12-year-old Eliza Grace Hughes is a martial arts superstar.
She chopped, kicked and dodged every obstacle put in front of her in the small studio at My Favorite Cardio Place. Her green belt swung around her waist as she heeded her teacher’s commands with no hesitation, chirping out a confident “yes, sir” or “no, sir” with every order.
Social interactions don’t always come naturally to Hughes, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. But when she’s in the martial arts studio, labels like that don’t matter to her. She’s just there to kick some butt and show off her moves.
“I love it,” Hughes said. “I like everything about it.”
My Favorite Cardio Place on East Durham Road in Cary has a therapeutic martial arts program that caters to children with special needs. Many of the children have forms of autism or attention deficit disorder, but the classes integrate kids of all ages and abilities.
David Aquino, who owns the business, has been teaching martial arts for more than 27 years. He said he decided to teach therapeutic martial arts after he dated someone who had children with special needs.
He saw how martial arts could help them learn core values like focus, discipline, concentration and respect.
“It feels more rewarding teaching kids with special needs,” Aquino said. “I am able to see the improvements it makes in their lives.”
Some studies have shown a link between martial arts and improvements among with children with autism.
Six children with autism showed improvements in social skills through an 11-week martial arts program, according to a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. The children displayed fewer negative behaviors, such as fighting, and they showed more self-confidence, according to the study.
Will McDowell, a 15-year-old student at Broughton High School in Raleigh, has been attending Aquino’s class for almost two years. He said martial arts has countless benefits, but for him, one of the most important values he has learned is discipline.
“Martial arts is a really good way to handle anger and other emotions,” McDowell said.
Aquino has made adjustments to a typical martial arts class to incorporate children with special needs. His classes have about six to eight students. Small classes help children concentrate and learn social skills, he said.
“You have to be more patient,” Aquino said. “Everyone’s different, so you have to take the time with them to make sure that they understand.”
Hughes said the class has helped her in school. She said she is able to concentrate more on assignments and focus on her classes.
Her mother, Jacque Hughes of Cary, said the small martial arts classes help.
“Other places are just too loud and overstimulating,” she said. “There are just too many kids in each class.”
Jacque Hughes also enrolled her son, who does not have special needs. She said the class has a “family atmosphere,” and she has met other parents dealing with some of the same issues she faces.
“It’s almost like a therapy support group for moms and dads,” she said.
Sam Bowditch, 15, has been taking a class for about a month. He has a form of autism.
Roy Bowditch, his father, said he has “already seen improvements” in Sam.
Aquino said he works with his students one-on-one and pushes them to do their best. Students undergo evaluations before they start so Aquino knows the best methods for helping them.
“Parents don’t always know their child’s true potential,” Aquino said. “They have to be pushed a little bit.”