Tessa Merritt, a 17-year-old orange belt in kenpo karate, has learned how to face an opponent with her bare hands.
“She is now punching like a fighter,” instructor Adam Smith said about Merritt. “She is moving forward not shying away which shows her confidence level has gone up tremendously. She feels she can defend herself.”
Merritt is autistic, and has studied kenpo and mixed martial arts with Smith for the past eight years.
“It’s awesome there,” Merritt said about the special needs class at Tazmanian Martial Arts.
Smith opened Tazmanian in June after having taught at other schools.
DeDe Merritt said she enrolled her daughter in karate to give her the ability to defend herself after reading about the high incidence of abuse among children with developmental disabilities. “It drove me nuts. So I wanted her to have self-defense knowledge.”
Besides learning how to defend herself, Merritt has seen her daughter develop better coordination, strength, balance and self-confidence.
“(Smith) is a wonderful instructor,” Merritt said. “He has exercises where she’s doing leg kicks and she has to hit a particular target. Before she used to kick, then fall and tumble on the mat. She is definitely a stronger girl.”
Paul McKinley, an 18-year-old with autism, began his martial arts training with Adams when he was 10. McKinley’s parents enrolled him in a special needs kenpo karate class as a fun activity, as well as a way to gain self-control.
“We were looking for some activities for Paul,” said his mother, Dana McKinley. “We knew the principles of karate such as self-control would be good skills to work on.
“Adam has that natural innate ability to connect with the kids,” she said. “He gets them to do what they need to do. He’s very encouraging, very positive, and doesn’t get frustrated.”
Paul McKinley recently earned his orange belt and wants to continue learning karate.
“Pretty soon I will get my black belt,” McKinley said. “I will be a karate teacher like Adam.”
Smith structures his special needs class the same as his other classes by incorporating karate traditions, such as students showing respect by bowing before going onto the floor.
“For the most part I just give them more patience, the rest of the class I keep the same,” Smith said about the classes. “I stay strict with them so it keeps structure of the class. It also helps new students coming in to know what to expect.”
Smith incorporates boxing, kickboxing and Brazilian jiujitsu into his karate classes.
“It’s a style that encompasses everything,” Smith said. “I give kids the best of what I feel has worked as far as my experiences go.”
Smith also works with students on self-control, honor, happiness and perseverance. Smith has the students be aware of how they can incorporate the principles into their lives.
“Each month we’ll go through a life principle,” Smith said. “It’s about knowing what we need to do in order to be successful adults and lead our lives right.”
DeDe Merritt said the karate classes have helped Tessa at University High School, where she’s part of the National Honor Society. She’s also a member of Tazmanian’s Martial Arts Honor Guard Life Team.
“She has integrity and she’s a good student,” DeDeMerritt said. “She strives to be the best she can be.”
As part of the program, Smith plans to have his students get involved in the community once a month performing different service tasks such as delivering meals or doing karate demonstrations at senior living facilities.
“That’s a huge thing for me is being able to help out,” Smith said. “You learn so much from it.”
Smith began taking kenpo karate at age 5. He has earned a black belt in kenpo and blue belt in Brazilian jiujitsu. He competes as a professional mixed martial arts fighter.
He began teaching eight years ago at the former Kick-N-Fun Martial Arts and taught at the School of Boxing before opening his own studio.
Three of his special needs students have followed him from other schools to attend his class.
“My special needs students are my pride and joy,” Smith said. “I have gotten to see the change in them.”
Smith wants his special needs class to grow and eventually split into two different levels, beginning and advanced.
“I really feel it’s a good program for special needs kids,” Smith said. “It develops their coordination, their sense of respect and confidence.”