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How martial arts helped a boy with autism break out of his shell

This is a post by Cheryl Vance, a 26-time world champion in the ATA and a 5th Degree Black Belt. She has taught martial arts for 13 years and has two sons.  She is passionate advocate for Autism Speaks and her son Hunter.

Last year Autism Speaks posted a story about an 11-year-old boy, diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum at age three who better found his voice through the help of martial arts. His name is Ethan Fineshriber and the story spoke of the challenges Ethan faced on his quest to earn a World Championship.

As one of his long time coaches and friends, I've watched this story unfold for the past 4 years and have a special bond with Ethan, having a son on the spectrum myself. My son's story was also featured on Autism Speaks blog here.

I've always viewed BOTH boys as champions. I spent this past year training to win my 31st world title, but was keen to keep tabs on Ethan's progress toward his first.

Coaches, family, and friends sat ringside at the 2016 American Taekwondo Association (ATA) World Championships while many at home waited anxiously to find out if he'd finally done it after three years of intense training and hard work. Ethan was the top seeded competitor in his XMA Forms division and was given the privilege of going last among all competitors. 

He entered the ring with a three-way tie already in place for first against his toughest competition. Ethan rose to the occasion earning a perfect score. This boy, whom began martial arts without a friend to play with, was rushed by his fellow competitors whom were also his dear friends and they hoisted him on their shoulders and patted him on the back and cheered for him so loudly that the ring couldn't continue competition for several minutes. The whole scene was magical.

My history with Ethan dates back to when I judged him at his very first tournament. I was able to relate to many of Ethan's challenges because of my own son. Ethan is on the mild end of the spectrum but has some hypersensitivity issues that make some of this a bit more challenging. But maybe Ethan's biggest issue has been the way he interprets sarcasm. His current coaches Kim Bantum (ATA) and Mike Tobin (NBL) have been patient knowing that he interprets some information differently. Ethan takes things literally so directions sometimes get misinterpreted and clarification is often needed. I remember once making the comment "You're killing me Ethan!" 
in a joking manner to lighten the mood. Instead of his face turning into the expected smile, it turned into horror at the thought he was about to mortally wound me!"

Martial arts, for Ethan, were beneficial because he's been forced to work through his sensitivity and anxiety challenges. But this sport is good at challenging people of every age and ability. With good instruction, it helps lessen the chance one finds themselves in a threatening situation, gives them tools to defend themselves if they are, helps improve health and coordination, instills confidence, and improves focus. It teaches leadership skills and is uniquely adaptable to bring out the highest potential in anyone. Autism Speaks partnered with the ATA to create a bridge to help educate each other’s members as to how they can best help society at large. The ATA also has high-level instructors that are deaf, paraplegic, and yes, even on the spectrum. ATA membership gives students and instructors a venue to learn, grow, teach, and compete, by allowing each individual to adapt this art to their own personal abilities.

No one can understand exactly what another person's challenges are unless they get to know them better. Most people meeting Ethan now are surprised that he is on the spectrum, or they say the ridiculous, that he's cured. 

One doesn't grow out of being who we are, one just works to make themselves better. That's what the ATA does so well. It works with each student and adapts to their abilities to help them better shine. A little time around Ethan reveals those markers, but he gets better at working through his challenges with each passing day and martial arts has been a catalyst in doing so.

Ethan loves to teach others martial arts and tricking. He has started a Youtube channel where he does one-minute tutorials. He loves to record his journey on Instagram @ethanfineshriberofficial and on the Ethan Fineshriber Facebook page. I am sincerely grateful for the generous support so many have offered to my former student and look forward with great anticipation to seeing what the future holds for this little Ninja.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.