Changing the Way We Talk About Autism in Martial Arts

We think it's pretty cool that Ethan Fineshriber, at 11-year-old autistic boy, just won a World Championship at the American Taekwondo Association World Expo, but are we missing out on an even better story when we call him "inspirational"?
July 20, 2016, 6:15pm

Photo via Facebook

Taekwondo tournament results rarely receive mainstream American media attention outside of Olympics coverage every four years. But the results of the 2016 American Taekwondo Association World Expo, held earlier in this month, recently graced the digital pages of Yahoo!, Fox News, and even People Magazine thanks to one of its young champions.

Ethan Fineshriber's victory caught the attention (and hearts) of the non-martial arts world because the 11-year-old Sandy, Utah native is autistic. Diagnosed when he was 3, he struggled to make friends, so his mother enrolled him in a TKD class in an effort to help him socialize.

Ethan flourished on the mats. "For the first day it was just leaning those new moves and it started getting me interested like I can learn this stuff and I can memorize this stuff and then I can do more of it," he told Fox 13.

When he was 8, Ethan set his sights on earning a world title. Three years and a lot of hard work and dedication later, he was able to realize that goal when he clinched the XMA Forms World Championship with a perfect score at the ATA World Expo. He also silvered in XMA Weapons.

Ethan's training partners—and his friends—rushed to congratulate him after his big win. "I felt nervous that I wasn't gonna win, but I thought I had a chance and then the judges called the numbers and everyone around me went insane," the newly-crowned champ said of the experience.

It's easy to see why a story like this would capture the interest of people who have previously paid little mind to the martial arts world. What's not to love about a young disabled boy finding companionship, purpose, and, ultimately, glory in a calling that truly speaks to him?

But the tone and this coverage is, to quote Laurie Bream (who is arguably another autistic champion of sorts), "… wanting."

While some articles, like the aforementioned People one, drift dangerously close to being Inspiration Porn—close enough that a tired line like "The only disability is a bad attitude" wouldn't look out of place in story—it's the headline for Fox's piece, "Sandy boy with autism shatters stereotypes, takes World Title in Taekwondo competition," that really isn't sitting right with me.

It might be true that, in some circles, Ethan's win did shatter a stereotype or two, given that the greater narrative around autism tends to dwell on the tragic. If all you've heard about the neurodevelopmental condition is that it's a brutally terrible condition that destroys lives and tears families apart, then a story about a kid who doesn't hate his life and is achieving things is probably going to blow your mind.

But if you do know anything about autism whatsoever, a kid excelling at this kind of thing should probably come closer to confirming a stereotype than shattering it. With their focus on ritual, repetition of skills, and logical progression from one technique to the next, martial arts can be an ideal fit for autistic people and their needs and interests. Training can also provide a wide range of benefits for the autistic student, fostering everything from much-needed self defense skills for a population incredibly vulnerable to bullying, to a chance to socialize in what is usually a much more supportive environment than the average school playground, to developing routines that can help to manage common comorbidities like anxiety. There are entire programs, like Fighting For Autism, that are dedicated to helping and engaging neurodivergent students through martial arts. And Ethan is far from the first autistic athlete to excel in combat sports, as evidenced by the careers of kickboxer Jo Redman and up-and-coming MMA fighter Serena DeJesus.

As an autistic person myself, the simplistic narrative about someone on the spectrum overcoming their tragic condition to do something remarkable (or even average) bothers me because it's reductive at best and often wildly incorrect. I've written before about the problems with the lazy way that many in the media tend to approach autism and the harm it can do to my community before.

The coverage of this story—and so many like it—also bothers me as someone who writes about martial arts, though, because it's been done so often and so poorly for so many years. The simplistic, feel good fairytale about a disabled person overcoming all odds and succeeded "in spite of" their disability was already a threabare cliche when the Mr. Show expertly skewered it two decades ago, and it's only become more boring and patronizing since.

More importantly, though, that same old line is overshadowing a far more interesting angle. Marital autists don't succeed in spite of their autism, nor the succeed only because of it, Rain Man-style. They succeed with autism. Like everything else about us as fighters, from body structure to psychological makeup, it provides a combination of strengths and weaknesses that can both make and break us in on the mats, or in the ring or cage. Wouldn't it be far more intriguing to analyze autism as such, instead of reducing it to a two-dimensional barrier? Wouldn't it be more fascinating to treat every neurodivergent condition this way?

When Georges St-Pierre started talking about his OCD, it led to all sorts of fascinating discussion, from both GSP and others, about how the condition influenced and maybe even fueled his MMA career. Think of how much we would have lost out on if anyone had tried to turn GSP into a simple object of inspiration. Think of how much we are missing out on when other martial artists are treated that way.

If the neuroatypical people who still produce the bulk of the material on autism could just work a little harder to overcome their own biases, reject their bad attitudes about the role that disabilities actually play in athletes' lives, and start to look at the bigger picture, though, we might actually find ourselves with a whole new and more thoughtful kind of story that would be genuinely inspiring.