"Awesome!" squeals Justin Slattery, after the sensei flips him over his shoulder with a solid thud onto the mat.
But the 6-year-old's karate lesson isn't about cool stunts. For several weeks, he has been diligently working on his coordination and focus, as the first student in a new class created by the K21 Kid Strong Foundation in Avon. This one-of-a-kind enrichment program is for children with autism and other related challenges. There is a growing belief that principles of this ancient Asian sport, such as self-discipline and movement, can "improve a child's baseline functioning," both physically and psychologically.
"The kids…have a difficult time understanding their physical being. Kick and a punch with opposite sides is difficult," says Dr. Philip Allmendinger, president of the foundation and also a retired surgeon from Hartford Hospital. "But they learn all of this. And as they learn, they start developing confidence."
Sensei David Farzinzad had seen great results with kids at his Canton studio, International Kyokushinskai Union, and jumped at the chance to work with behavioral pediatricians and occupational therapists to develop this program. The volunteers at this nonprofit are prepared to give any child the guidance he needs.
"We may have one child who doesn't want to be touched, and another one who likes to scream," says Allmendinger. "The way the program works is that they get tremendous support, particularly from the sensei."
Farzinzad's experience is apparent, as he is both patient and structured with Justin, who has attention deficit disorder and a developmental delay. During the lesson, Justin is joined by two older mentors who help model the sometimes complex katas, or moves.
"We are definitely seeing differences already. He's a lot more focused at times," says Justin's dad, Joe Slattery of Simsbury. "I think he's taking in a lot, the way they're approaching it. Definitely, he's understanding the 'respect' part of it, which I'm very glad to see."
His wife, Tracy, says Justin didn't like soccer or t-ball but is enthusiastic about martial arts.
"He's counting to 10 in Japanese," she says. "He doesn't fall down as much and he's getting to know his spaces." The class, held twice each week for one hour, is also meant to inspire an inclusive atmosphere and a self-assurance in kids which will help them build their social and communication skills.
Organizers want to see this concept spread, much like therapeutic horseback riding. "We hope it will move from dojo to dojo," says Allmendinger, who thinks this program could become a research pilot study that helps many kids. "It just prepares them for the world."
Justin is planning to stick with karate, a sport that slows him down while bringing strength to his arms and a smile to his face.
>>For more information, log onto http://www.k21kidstrong.org. To see this class in action, tune into today's Fox CT Morning News.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times