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OC Register: Karate Instills Confidence In Special-Needs Kids

By Thy Vo | Orange County Register

July 8, 2012 at 12:23 pm

TUSTIN – Between the front-kicks, grunting and “serious karate faces,” the students at Karate For All laugh, dance and help one another off the ground.

The occupational therapy-based martial arts program works with individuals on motor, cognitive, sensory and social skills through the practice of karate. Students range from 3 ½ to 37 years old, with such diagnoses as autism, cerebral palsy and sensory processing disorders.

Founder and director Wayne Centra, or Sensei Wayne, is a certified occupational therapist and black belt who has been teaching special needs children for 22 years. He says that while what they teach is always safe and fun, it’s just as serious as any other karate studio. The difference is that the instructors are always smiling.

“A lot of these kids go to other karate places and they just stand in the corner, and they get yelled at,” said Centra. “Parents are cautious – you want your child to engage, but you’re afraid they will be teased. That fear is taken away here.”

5-year-old Casey Ecker has an inner ear disorder that makes it difficult to sense where he is in space. With his eyes open, he can hop on one foot; with his eyes closed, he struggles to walk in a straight line.

At another karate studio, the instructors didn’t recognize what was wrong and punished Casey because they thought he was “doing it on purpose,” Centra said.

Centra started teaching karate as therapy in 2001, with just one patient at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County. Now his program teaches more than 400 people across Orange County, at studios in Tustin and Mission Viejo. He also treats patients in Tustin in his private practice, Centra Pediatric Therapy.

Classes are more or less like your typical karate lesson: instructors lead students through breathing exercises, self-defense techniques and katas, or traditional karate forms.

But there are a few key differences. For one, classes are small – seven or eight kids outnumbered by instructors and volunteers, many of them college students and aspiring occupational therapists.

Centra emphasizes creating a peer-to-peer setting where students can speak to, interact with and help each other as well as the volunteers.

Part of that, he says, is treating everyone the same. About a fifth of the children in the program are “typical,” usually the sibling of a special needs student. On Sunday, Karate for All held a karate tournament where 64 kids – typical and atypical – competed against one another.

“Sensei Wayne doesn’t differentiate kids – even I don’t know what kids are typical or atypical,” said Heidi Brandl, Casey’s mother. “And a lot of parents are relieved by that.”

For Centra, inspiration to begin teaching special needs children came from his grandmother, who went blind giving birth. Despite her disability, she raised three children and cooked for the whole family on holidays.

“She inspired me to help these kids be like everybody else,” he said.

More than 80 percent of students in the program have autism, a disorder that affects how the brain develops social and communication skills. The program incorporates activities to develop social skills, some as simple as asking students to make eye contact and introduce themselves to a volunteer at the start and end of every class.

Michelle Tarlo’s 7-year-old son Benjamin has been coming to Karate for All for the last few months. Benjamin has difficulty socializing and verbalizing without extra prompting.

“Being occupational therapists, we’re able to decipher their limitations and guess each student’s limitations while we’re doing the karate,” Centra said. “Because Benjamin has issues initiating verbally, I try to engage and role-play with him whenever I can.”

Tarlo says since coming to the center, her son’s confidence, self-esteem and discipline have improved.

The dojo has rules that every student has to follow, from bowing when you enter the studio, to not speaking out of turn. Breaking rules might earn you push-ups.

“My son idolizes him – even when he’s tough on them,” Tarlo said.

Karate for All also teaches a workshop for parents and children on bullying and how to prevent it.

According to a study by the British Journal of Learning Support, 60 percent of students with disabilities report being bullied, compared to just a quarter of the general student population.

“Our kids are so sweet and friendly, but they aren’t able to identify the social cues of being mean and aggressive,” said Centra, adding that at least six kids have defended themselves against a bully since the program started.

In addition to his karate-therapy, Centra also teaches a parent class where he coaches parents on techniques to help their kids at home.

Since her 5-year-old Brandon, who has autism and a sensory processing disorder, began coming to Karate for All, Jillian Clausi said she’s seen big improvements.

“He seeks input, so he used to rock back and forth and spin,” said Clausi. “Wayne taught me the language that I need to use with him – words like ‘focus forward’ and ‘calm body’ that they use in class.”

“We just went on vacation, and [Brandon] was talking, initiating with other kids – that’s huge,” she added.

The parent class is also something of a support group. Whether a parent is coming to terms with a diagnosis or learning how to navigate the public school system, Clausi says, the dojo is a network for advice and resources for the parents of special needs children.

With classes seven days a week and one-on-one therapy sessions with patients, Centra is constantly working. The program now has dance classes taught by instructor and occupational therapist Jason Tse, and an annual surf camp.

Centra hopes to open another facility later this year.

During one class, Centra has a group of boys under the age of 8 practicing their front-kicks with a volunteer. One last, hard kick sends a row of college-aged volunteers tumbling to the ground.

“Go help them up,” Centra shouts, and all seven boys scramble to lend a hand.

“I want them to help other people, especially when everyone is so used to helping them,” said Centra. “It’s a good thing in life, to be able to help others.”


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