Gracie Barra provides us each with a place to leave the world outside the dojo doors and focus on mental toughness and physical prowess.”
When you look around your academy, thinking about what “Jiu Jitsu for Everyone” means, what do you see? A fifteen-year old orange belt phenom playing her open guard, frustrating the twenty-something white belt college student doing her best to pass? A sinewy doctor in his late forties escaping the attempt on his back by the younger, multiple IBJJF medalist? You see men and women, girls and boys. You see white belts and blue belts, a black belt and some belts in-between. You see a student, a nurse, a lawyer, a yoga instructor, an artist and a security guard. But, do you really see everyone?
People categorize and rank each other from a young age, similarly to how we are categorized by weight and ranked by skill in our individual Jiu Jitsu journeys. It is in our nature to seek our place in the line-up and in martial arts we learn this from our masters and our training partners. In life, it’s a little more complicated. We probably should listen when our parents tell us we’re special and trust our inner voices, but it’s not so easy when the people you want to accept you just… won’t.
When Tommy Belt was a teenager, just a young high school kid trying to get his homework done and survive the day like everyone else, he wasn’t welcomed at the “cool kids” table. He was hog-tied and left atop it. He wasn’t cheered for being special, but jeered for being different. Instead of cowering in the corner, which many of us would have gladly done, he took refuge in his love of martial arts. Over the years, Tommy has trained in wrestling, Kempo Karate, boxing, and now Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Training in martial arts has given Tommy an outlet and confidence since he started, but it has brought his family much more in recent years. Fast forward from the aching kid on the cafeteria table to a strong and happy father of three. Tommy’s two sons have been training at Gracie Barra Pasadena for about two years and you would probably only categorize them as junior male grey/white belts if you watched them on the mats. You wouldn’t recognize the importance of the moment that Tommy’s 9-year old son hugged him after about a year of training Jiu Jitsu. You wouldn’t realize it was for the first time. Or see the progressive desensitization to touch that each training session is providing to his boys, that even making grips is a huge step forward. Why would you?
What you don’t see is that Tommy Belt is Autistic. So are his boys. The outside world labels them as different, but you won’t see this on the mats. Jiu Jitsu is an equalizer and Gracie Barra provides us each with a place to leave the world outside the dojo doors and focus on mental toughness and physical prowess. It’s not easy to do for individuals who are struggling each day with sensory integration and the complicated language of social cues that many others take for granted. Out in the world, the Belt family is thought to lack empathy and emotions. They have been bullied for having filters of our world that they never chose and because they fall somewhere within the autistic spectrum. Whether a person with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) is low or high functioning, has a sleep disorder or GI dysfunction, does it matter when you roll?
There are many misconceptions about ASD, as there are misconceptions about martial artists. We aren’t all full of punches and aggression. We are disciplined and compassionate. We are not just fighters, but members of the Gracie Barra family. Remember Tommy the next time you think you know who someone is by his or her belt color. Each of us is fighting some kind of battle, one we get to leave behind when we walk onto the mats. Jiu Jitsu really is for everyone.
For more information about ASD, please visit autismspeaks.org
Credits: Anya Kajlich