Letter to an Autistic Aikido Student

July 26, 2014

I’ve been teaching aikido for more than three decades. As far as I know, I’m the most advanced Autistic aikidoka (aikido practitioner) in the world. There are few enough people at my level in the art that if there were another Autistic close to this level, I’d almost certainly have heard about them by now – especially since I’ve actively looked around for other advanced Autistic aikidoka.

While I don’t know of any who are close to my level, I have been hearing from a lot of fellow Autistic aikidoka these days. Most of those I hear from are still in their first few years of practice – there seem to be more and more of us beginning practice, which pleases me immensely.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where, from very early in their lives, Autistics are pathologized and taught to self-pathologize, where they’re oppressed and shamed until that oppression and shame and sense of being deficient or defective becomes internalized.

This self-pathologization and internalized shame can make it easy to become discouraged in the face of challenge and frustration. And this can pose a serious obstacle on the long path to mastery of aikido, especially in the early years – because, as anyone who’s tried it knows, there are few activities in life that offer more opportunity to experience challenge and frustration than being a beginning aikido student.

This week I got an email from a beginning Autistic aikidoka (one with whom I’d had no previous contact) who was grappling with this issue. I replied at length, and I decided to post my reply here for anyone else who might benefit from it.

I hope that my words will be of some use not only to fellow Autistics and fellow aikidoka, but to anyone, Autistic or otherwise, who might be encountering difficulty, frustration, or discouragement in in any path of long-term practice and mastery.

Here are the relevant portions of the email I received:

I am a relatively new student to Aikido. I absolutely LOVE the principles, and I understand them fairly well on a cerebral level, but in application I suck… at least i think I do. I got extremely frustrated with the dojo I was practicing at, because it seemed that my aspergers was causing me to not blend with [my training partners]… like, ever. […] I stopped going to the dojo for a while to gain perspective on things […] Do you have any thoughts on what is going on?

This was my reply:

Something I’ve learned from many years of practicing and teaching aikido is that the only way to make any progress in the art is to keep training and training, especially when it’s difficult.

People who stop training when it’s difficult and frustrating never get anywhere in the art.

People who patiently persist in their training no matter what, eventually start to get good.

Something I’ve learned from many years of being Autistic and being involved in Autistic community is that it’s not helpful to speak of “my autism” or “my aspergers,” as if it were somehow separate or separable from oneself, like a medical condition. If you’re Autistic (or “Aspie,” “Aspergers,” or however you choose to identify), then that’s integral to who you are, an integral aspect of the mind and body with which you practice aikido.

Sure, being Autistic can make aikido training more challenging at first. Autism comes with particularly complex sensory experience and with particularly complex and chaotic neuromuscular feedback processes that can pose all sorts of challenges to coordination. But that’s what you have to work with. Your vehicle for doing aikido – and for existing in the world – is your self, and your self is an Autistic self. It’s the only self you’ve got, so you’ve got to accept it and work with it if you’re going to get anywhere. You can only work with what you’ve got to work with, and you can only start from where you are.

Instead of “My aspergers is causing me to have difficulty in my aikido practice,” try thinking and speaking of it as, “I have difficulty in my aikido practice.” That seems to me to be a much more productive way of thinking, because everyone has difficulty in their aikido practice, except for the people who aren’t practicing at all. And the solution to difficulty in one’s aikido practice is to increase one’s commitment to one’s practice, and keep at it.

Difficulties such as the ones you’re encountering can be frustrating in the early years of your training, but they’re trivial in the long run. When it comes to the difference between success and failure in the aikidoka’s journey of mastery, long-term persistence and commitment in one’s training outweighs all other factors.

Persistence trumps talent. Compare two people in their first year of aikido training, and one of them might be far more coordinated and a far quicker learner than the other. But compare them both 30 years later, and if they both kept practicing and practicing, the differences in skill between them by that point are likely to be negligible. If only one of those two students kept practicing for 30 years, then that’s the one who will be good at aikido.

Seems to me that the real obstacle to your practice isn’t your natural neurological wiring, but your negative self-judgment and how easily you’ve allowed yourself to become discouraged.

Stop doing that. Do not allow your aikido training to be derailed by challenges, and certainly not by anything as transient and unreliable as the self-judgments or emotional reactions that arise in the face of those challenges.

Get back to the dojo right away, and practice, practice, practice. 



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