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Karate — A Gentle Art With a Powerful Impact On Special Needs

On any given day or evening on Beach 116th Street, one can find children of all ages and abilities, outfitted in their “Gi” (karate uniform), headed up to World Champions Karate Center. Though since the pandemic, the long-time karate dojo has changed locations, for owner, Sensei Bruce Hodes, and Sensei Michael Salemi, the mission has remained the same—making world class champions of all kids, including those with autism and other special needs. When a friend shared a video of his autistic son, Michael Wolf (pictured) in the dojo practicing with Salemi, I was intrigued.

According to Hodes, (who has been practicing karate for over 60 years, starting his own dojo in 1972 in his Belle Harbor basement) what the Japanese did with karate after thousands of years of observation, is make the moves natural according to their observations of animals and insects. “What’s natural to an animal is not natural to a human being. However, once you’ve trained, you develop awareness. All movements are patterned after the animal kingdom,” Hodes explained.

The top reasons caregivers should enroll their special-needs child in karate, Hodes and Salemi stated: 1) Karate builds confidence and self-esteem, 2) Improves balance and coordination, 3) Keeps kids physically active. 4) Builds socialization skills. 5) Focuses aggression into something positive.

Hodes shared, “The reason I started karate is when I saw two people sparring, (‘kumete,’ which means ‘fighting hands’), then afterwards, bowed and shook hands. I was so overwhelmed by this, as I was bullied as a child. To this day, I maintain in our dojo, that after each session, we bow and shake hands,” Hodes said.

In autism, a common behavior is performing repetitive movements, including stimming. According to Hodes, repetition is the foundation of martial arts training, and individuals on the spectrum have awed him with their memorization skills. “Years ago, I had a brown belt who copied me through the positions, even the way I spoke. He was amazing,” he said.

Salemi explained that “kata” is a sequence of movements in which students not just memorize and execute the moves, but also understand which part of their body is leading and following. “Karate teaches you how to move your body naturally without causing stress on your back, limbs, and joints,” he said.

Salemi, who grew up in East New York, said his mother got him involved. “My mom said that I needed to learn how to defend myself, so she enrolled me in karate. Fifty-five years, I’m still at it, and enjoy teaching children. I lost my son with congenital heart disease over a dozen years ago after he lost oxygen during a surgery. Though he had a learning disability, I practiced karate with him. It was a challenge but made me even more determined to help special kids like him. That’s the point I realized my calling in this life was to help special children.”

Hodes said, “Sensei Salemi is great with the kids. Even during the pandemic when we were closed, he would be up on the boardwalk teaching kids for free.”

The dojo also re-enforces positive affirmations. “Every black belt was a white belt. We don’t fail children on tests. We just want to see them show up. After each session, we congratulate them on their hard work, and after 90 days, students move up to another belt.” Hodes said.

For a live karate demonstration, join RBAF at our support group meeting this Thursday, September 22, 7 p.m. at Knights of Columbus, 2nd floor meeting room (333 Beach 90th Street). Guest speaker, Sensei Michael Salemi of World Champions Karate Center, will address the benefits of martial arts for individuals with special needs. All welcome! For more info, visit Rockaway Beach Autism Families on Facebook/Instagram.

World Champions Karate Center is located at 181 Beach 116th Street, offering affordable private and group classes, including for families enrolled in OPWDD’s Self-Direction. For more info, call (718) 812-0737.

By Kami-Leigh Agard

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