New routine

By GORDON ANDERSON

MY TOWN – Ben Brooks faces his young karate students and starts gently issuing commands.

“Move your arms in circles,” he says. “Get your feet apart. Now try to touch the ground.”

Brooks is teaching a “Little Dragons” class on a Tuesday night at his karate studio, G-Force Kenpo Karate Systems, in Sanford. His young students listen to his warm-up commands intently and follow suit.

You’d never know that two of the students in this particular class were autistic.

In all, Brooks teaches three autistic children Kenpo karate, a Chinese form of the ancient martial art.

It started in October 2004 when Carrie Magee, whose oldest son, Mason, was at the time already enrolled in Brooks’ program, asked if her younger son, Spencer, could enroll as well.

Spencer, a “high-functioning” autistic child, had trouble with other sports such as soccer and basketball, according to his mother.

“He’d been kicked out of some other programs,” Carrie Magee said. “And I asked Sensei Ben if he could participate. And he didn’t promise me anything, but he just said we’d try it and see how it works.”

Months later, the results have been better than anyone expected. In addition to Spencer, 7-year-old Austin Burkey and 8-year-old Frank Wishart, both autistic, have signed up.

“Autistic kids thrive on routines,” Magee said. “And I think karate gives (Spencer) those routines, but it also helps him think outside the box.”

Those routines are evident watching Brooks teach the children. He puts them through series after series of repetitive blocks, stances and sitting positions. It’s something that all of the children respond to.

But Brooks himself remains somewhat nonplused about the success the autistic children are having in his program.

“I didn’t expect (this kind of success) at all,” he said, saying “that’s a good question” when asked why he thinks karate works so well for the autistic kids.

He only points to his philosophy – “I try to treat all of the kids the same. I want (the autistic kids) to feel like any other kid in the class,” he says – as a reason why the success is happening.

And the parents can’t speak highly enough of him.

“I like the way Sensei Ben teaches them,” said Lisa Wishart, whose autistic son, Frank, as well as her younger son, Robert, both take classes at G-Force. “It’s been very good for both of my boys because Ben really accepts children, all children.”

Magee concurred, “Sensei Ben is just so good with these kids,” concurred Magee.

And you can tell – during one exercise where Brooks has the children lined up to do a running flip onto a padded mat and then come up kicking a workout dummy, he gets in line behind them.

“I want to do one,” he says, smiling.

Autism is a neurological disorder that consists of several symptoms, ranging from repeating verbal stimuli to problems dealing with sensory perception. Some 40 percent of those with autism don’t speak at all.

Tom Backus, a special education teacher at Tramway Elementary, describes the disorder as “a spectrum disorder – there are some that are what we call high-functioning. They can be in regular classes and function on a day-to-day basis. But the disorder ranges down to where some function at a mentally retarded level.”

A simpler explanation of the disorder was given by Mason Magee, who at 20 months older than his brother Spencer, has dealt with autism his entire life.

“It means they don’t think the same as us,” the 8-year-old said. “Sometimes they don’t know what our words mean.”

Routine is one recurring, if not constant, theme with autistic children. Brooks has cited that as the biggest challenge in teaching them karate.

“If I change the routine, it’s very hard for them,” he said. “But once they’ve got the routine down, they’re good to go.”

Ben Brooks has been involved in Kenpo karate since he was 13.

Now, at age 24, he is a third-degree black belt and owns his own karate studio.

“I knew at 13 that this is what I wanted to be doing,” he said.

Brooks bought the studio, which has been open in (my town) since 1993, in 2003. He was approached by Carrie Magee about her son taking karate lessons the next year.

“After she came in, I did some research (about autism) on the Internet,” he said. “You have to be able to discipline the autistic children at the correct times. Sometimes, they’re doing things that they can’t help, and if they can’t help it, you can’t discipline them.”

As to how the other kids in Brooks’ classes react to being around autistic children, Brooks said he’s had no problem.

“Some of the kids notice that they’re a little different,” Brooks said. “But I haven’t had any problems. For the most part, the kids follow my example, and my example is to treat them the same as I treat anyone else.”

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