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Michael Barton - Judo - Autism

So, this week’s story is another positive one! Michael Barton is a British 30+ Bronze Medallist Judo player, he’s a data analyst, TEDx speaker, and he’s Autistic.

Michael as a great example of how through explicit learning, an Autistic person can overcome early difficulties and ultimately exceed expectations. Most children learn and develop skills such as walking, talking, and socialising without being explicitly taught – they learn innately. But for many children with Autism, and Michael was one of these, they require more explicit instructions to develop and master new skills. Michael’s learning journey deviated or diverged from ‘the norm’ as a child, but if anything, it empowered him to excel as an adult.

Michael was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) at the age of 2 and was non-verbal until the age of 3. He spoke openly about childhood difficulties with proprioception (causing him to walk on the balls of his feet), executive functioning (prompting the need for a thorough daily ‘to do’ list), and obsessive compulsivity (causing stress when things were visually ‘out of place’). Yet, regardless of these difficulties, it didn’t stop Michael from following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and taking up Judo at the age of 8.

Michael was encouraged by his family to take up Judo because (again) like many other Autistic people, he was bullied at school for being different. Judo not only helped him to grow in confidence, but it also helped him overcome some of his early proprioception issues. One common misconception about people with proprioception issues is that they will never be capable of efficiently or effectively coordinating their movement – they will forever be “awkward” and “clumsy”. From a very early age, children are too often labelled as uncoordinated, they have bad experiences of sport at school (they’re often ‘chucked in the deep end’ with ball sports) and are put off of sport and exercise forever! Michael is a great example of how proprioception issues can be overcome with explicit learning in the right environment. For Michael, Judo was the perfect environment.

With the help of his family, Michael was able to overcome many of his early learning differences; he experienced delayed learning, but he learnt, nonetheless; he turned to Judo in the face of difficulties at school; he lacked proprioception as a child, so he used Judo to improve his motor skills; he struggled with executive functioning, so he used Judo to establish a routine; there was no Judo club at his university, so he created one!

If anything, having the early support, understanding, and opportunities to overcome these challenges gave Michael a level of resilience and learned skills that allowed him to excel later in life. As an adult he earned his blackbelt, which is a feat that not many achieve, and recently he won a bronze medal at the national championships (30+)! For me, Michael was enabled and not simply labelled, and the result was that he exceeded expectations, and continues to do so. Michael is not only accomplishing things that an Autistic person ‘shouldn’t be capable of’ in many people’s eyes – he's achieving things that neurotypical people would find incredibly challenging too. In doing so he’s playing a crucial role in combatting negative preconceptions, discrimination, and exclusion of Autistic people in mainstream sport.

Michael told me he “doesn’t see barriers like other people”, and this is something that really resonated with me. I agree that where certain skills are not innate to Autistic people, other attributes are… attributes such as attention to detail, pattern recognition, problem-solving skills, perseverance, and determination… these are all incredibly valuable attributes (and attributes that make a good athlete), but they’re often not seen or at least not valued when packaged within an Autistic exterior.

I asked Michael why he thought his experience of Judo was so positive…

For Michael, it comes down to:

1) The very nature of how Judo is taught aligning almost perfectly with Autistic learning styles. In being Autistic, you have to learn how to learn… therefore, you end up being very proficient at learning. In being proficient at learning, you pick things up quickly when you’re taught explicitly. Unlike running for instance, which is innate, Judo is a sport that doesn’t come naturally to human beings. The nuanced moves require explicit coaching, and therefore explicit coaching is the norm. So, by the very nature of Judo being unnatural, it fosters the perfect environment for Autistic learners, and Autistic learners end up excelling because of their innate characteristics.

2) In being a great learner, Michael became very good at Judo, and in being very good at Judo, he felt he had a certain status on the mat – he commanded respect which is something he didn’t experience in other social situations. Michael told me: “Admittedly my ability to make friends is below average”, which firstly (in context) made me laugh out loud, but also serves to highlight the power of sport to create common ground. Sport can negate the need for small talk and often relies on non-verbal communication, which is a welcome relief for those who find small talk challenging and prefer to communicate through their actions and not their words. Sport also allows people to gain respect through their learned skills and work ethic, which is again a welcome relief for those whose “ability to make friends is below average”. For Michael, sport is an essential means of socialisation, and it could be for many more Autistic people if it was made more accessible... if there was a degree of shared understanding.

3) This shared understanding is arguably easier to foster in small-scale, localised, or ‘niche’ sports such as Judo. According to Michael, being in a niche sport is a great way to make friends and meet people because members not only have a common interest, but they have more contact time with each other, and there’s more value placed on each individual. The question is – how do you foster person-centred understanding in larger, more mainstream sports where there’s less motivation to value the individual?

I asked Michael if he had any advice for other Autistic athletes…

He suggested:

A) Finding a club that’s right for you. If you come across a club that you don’t like ‘the vibe’ of, don’t assume it represents the sport as a whole. It’s okay to try different clubs or different sports until you hit on the one that feels right. The important thing is not to be put off!

B) As well as this, understanding your mindset and how it applies to sport could help an you navigate your sporting environment better… many neurodivergent people find seeing the ‘grey scale’ difficult; they take in all the coaching, or they ignore it completely. Michael’s advice is to try as best you can to strike a balance: to critically assess the advice you are given by friends, coaches, or supporters, and to use your judgement on a case-by-case basis.

I also asked Michael if he had any advice for coaches or clubs trying to be more neuroinclusive…

He suggested that where possible, clubs should try to have more than one coach on the mat at a time. Having one-to-one coaching can be incredibly helpful for Autistic athletes as it allows coaching and communication to be tailored to the individual. It allows the Autistic athletes to ask questions without (or without fear of) disrupting other people’s learning.

To conclude

In many ways Michael conforms to the Autistic stereotype; he’s a white male, a data analyst, he knows his own mind, and he loved telling me all about his special interest (the history of Judo and the coloured belt system) … BUT it doesn’t make him any less unique or in need of understanding.

It’s human nature to unconsciously group people into categories – to see patterns and make connections – as an Autistic person, it’s my favourite thing to do!! But, as much as it can be incredibly helpful and at times necessary, it also serves to maintain the status quo.

In order to challenge societal bias, we must first challenge our own unconscious bias.

How do we do that?

We learn about individuals: We ask. We listen. We learn.

It’s far better to ask a question that to avoid a difficult conversation.

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