Martial Arts Helps Special Need Adults

Study Finds Correlation Between Self-Esteem, Improved Movement and Martial Arts for Special Needs Adults

By Alexandra Allred


In 2016, the results of a two-year study were presented at the 13th Annual Pathways Student Research Symposium regarding the health benefits of a martial arts-based fitness program for special needs young adults. It has long been held that martial arts are beneficial to children diagnosed with intellectual and/or physical disabilities but very little data has been presented for adults. Pas Fitness, a functional fitness program, was created for populations diagnosed with Downs syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, stroke and seizure, intellectual and/or physical disabilities for the purpose of developing better movement patterns, greater stamina and strength, and better balance to increase confidence and the long-term goal of greater independence for adults.

The secret recipe? Martial arts.

The study, conducted by a Tarleton State University kinesiology graduate student, in conjunction with the Occupational Therapy Department of Navarro College, used the principles of martial arts in cross-pattern, multi-directional movement that require hand/eye coordination, core and cognitive skills. Students were tested on discerning their “left” from “right” and how to follow basic directions or cues in class. Through martial arts, students learned about their own bodies, encouraging students to understand and appreciate great function and how their body works.

In the beginning of the 16-week study, participants (ranging in age from 19 to 52) displayed an array of imbalance and instability, both physical and emotional insecurities and anxiety. The majority of those unable to exhibit appropriate behavior have underlying medical conditions which, combined with new challenges and environmental factors, made concentration very difficult. Yet, when presented a structured program in which the students learned to punch a “target,” a polycarbonate sheet, tailored in size (18”x 22”), the research testers were encouraged by unpredicted results. In addition to the increase in balance, spatial reasoning and abilities, stride, and functional movement came improved self-esteem and confidence.

Subjects who previously struggled to concentrate due to environmental factors, such as noise, different examiners, even weather, exhibited increased confidence and well-socialized behavior. Two subjects, in particular, who previously refused to participate in class, began punching and smiling. Of the two, a subject with autism who refuses to give or accept body contact, was observed giving multiple “high-fives” to his peers and examiners following specific skill challenges.

At the conclusion of the study, all participants told their examiners they felt stronger and asked to continue with the martial arts training. The study conclusively found a direct correlation between the improved scores of cross-pattern physical tasks and multi-directional cues to the significant improvement in the behavioral scores of the subjects, thus reinforcing the need to introduce multi-functional movements and cognitive skills in a physical program. The students learned to block out or resist more outside environmental factors, such as noise, as they progressed but best of all, the level of raised or secured confidence most surprised the examiners in this study. Subjects who previously would not allow themselves to be touched were offering high-fives; subjects who never spoke or would only look at that ground were engaging in conversation and held eye contact. All subjects reportedly were happier, more talkative, and willing to engage conversations with people not part of the study. All the subjects were willing to adapt and learn new exercises and material, including names of the human anatomy, distinguishing “left” from “right,” and counting. The students were both aware and proud of their improvements.

Yet another surprising result from the study was the feedback given to instructors and research examiners from the family and/or caregivers of the students. It was reported that the students exhibited increased behaviors of responsibility and communication. They were aware of what days and times they were to train, what they needed to wear, and the importance of preparing for their class. The most unexpected but positive results noted by the examiners was the bond formed between the students. In no part of the study was there a section for monitoring teamwork or cheering for other participants in the study yet by mid-term, individuals were waiting for and/or cheering on others in the study to perform a task.

For true martial artists, these results yield little surprise but it does offers an academic, research-based study proving both short- and long-term benefits of martials arts.

For more information about the fitness program for special needs young adults, contact Alexandra Allred at