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Karate For Special Needs – The Complete Guide

Martial arts are well known to have a range of positive benefits both physically, emotionally, and mentally. In this article, I will explain if Karate is good for children or people with special needs, and any unique advantages it has.

Overall, studies have shown that Karate improves the symptoms of ADHD, Autism, as well as all mental and physical disabilities. Various studies have shown through controlled experiments that Karate offers improvements to all people with special needs.

In this article, I’ll take a look at:

  • Results of studies that measured the impact of karate on special needs students
  • The benefits for those with physical disabilities
  • Benefits for ADHD
  • Benefits for those with mental disabilities
  • Overarching benefits of karate and martial arts for those with special needs
  • Is karate the best martial art for special needs?
  • Does karate help with anger issues?
Karate class for beginners with some special needs students

Results of Studies That Measured the Benefits of Karate for Special Needs

Karate is one of the most well-known martial arts and is particularly popular in North America and around the world.

It is mostly a striking martial art but focuses on core moral values as well.

Huge comprehensive studies have looked at some of the main disabilities, and how Karate and almost identical martial arts like Taekwondo affect people with the following disabilities.

  • Physical disabilities
  • ADHD
  • Autism (mental disability)
  • Mental disabilities

Across the board, it was found that there were significant measurable benefits for people with the above disabilities.

Below is specifically what these studies found. Let’s dig in.

Karate Benefits For People With Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities take a number of forms and can range in how much they impair a person’s abilities.

A study was performed at the University of Wisconsin where people with a range of physical disabilities that actively do Karate were asked a range of different questions about what improvements they saw from Karate. 

It was found that many of the participants reported measurable improvements in various key areas, and almost all reported improvements in specific areas.

Below is a list of each of the physical areas they reported had improvements, as well as, what percentage of the people surveyed said yes they did notice an improvement:

Physical disabilityPercentage who stated they had a noticeable improvement
Mobility 45%
Environmental awareness45%
Blood pressure15%

In the study, it was reported that 90% of people with physical disabilities attended the regular class. The other 10% have private classes with the instructor or had a closed group class.

Also, of the people surveyed about 5% of the people surveyed modified the moves slightly to accommodate their physical disability, and about 20% attended class in a wheelchair or trained in a seated position. 

From the data, it’s clear that about 1 in 2 people notice improved mobility while doing the karate moves exactly as shown.

Benefits Of Karate For People With ADHD

A study was done on the effects of Karate on some key tests that measure a person’s ADHD. It was found that it provided a significant improvement in two of the measurable areas. 

These are the ability to concentrate on short-duration tasks for a period of time, as well as, the ability to focus (concentrate) on things visually.

They tested the participants who were previously diagnosed with ADHD and then had them do Karate for 1.5 years. After they had done 1.5 years of Karate they measured them again using the exact same tests.

Below, are two tables that show the results:

ADHD test results before and after doing Karate

BeforeAfter 1.5 years of Karate
Mental attention test score57.475.9
Visual attention test score41.058.9

Below, is a table that shows the results of the control group measured at the start of the study, and 1.5 years after.

The control group did not do any Karate at all.

ADHD test results for people that did not do Karate (control group)

BeforeAfter (control group no Karate training)
Mental attention test score63.756.8
Visual attention test score45.940.1

From the data, it’s clear that doing Karate provided a significant improvement in the symptoms of ADHD.

And surprisingly, those that didn’t train in Karate scored worse over time. The tests they used were a Stroop test and a Ruff test.

The Stroop test is where they are timed for 45 seconds and asked to name blocks of colors from a sheet of paper that has 100 different colored blocks. People that can name more colors can focus more – they don’t have ADHD or have less severe ADHD

A Ruff test, on the other hand, is where participants were given blocks with a few numbers written on them that were different colors.

For example, a number 4 that is blue, next to a number 4 that is red in color. They were asked to pick out a particular number – such as the number 4 that is red – multiple times, and they recorded how accurate they were.

This tests visual ADHD because they need to focus on the different numbers, and different colored numbers to accurately pick the right one.

These results are particularly surprising. It appears that Karate reverses the worsening of ADHD over time.

Benefits Of Karate For People With Mental Disabilities

Training in Karate has been found to increase cognitive abilities, such as in math, science, reading, and comprehension. 

There is a range of mental disabilities from taking longer than average to learn new skills, to mood disorders caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.

One incredibly large review of 500,000 studies done on the effect of martial arts on mental health found that there was a noticeable improvement in:

Mental health conditionLevel of improvement
Internalizing mental health conditions (such as anxiety, and depression)Medium
Reducing aggressionMinimal

This is somewhat surprising as many people report that after doing martial arts, people feel more humble and less aggressive.

But, the results prove otherwise, at least for Karate.

Another study looked at whether Karate has any benefits for autism. Let’s take a look at that:

Benefits Of Karate For Autism

A study took two groups of people:

  • People that had been diagnosed with autism
  • A control group who had not been diagnosed with autism

They had both groups perform martial arts training over a set period of time. It was found that martial arts training such as Karate provided a significant improvement in language expression.

Benefits Of Karate And Other Martial Arts Overall

On top of these specific benefits of Karate for people with special needs, there are some benefits for Karate and other martial arts overall.

Some are unique to martial arts, while others are for physical activities like sports. These benefits of Karate and martial arts overall are:

  • Increased physical coordination and fitness
  • Self-confidence
  • Moral values
  • Developing social skills
  • Increased cognitive function (memory, planning, problem-solving)

Looking at things from a broader perspective, multiple studies have found that sports in general have the following positive effects (source):

  • Participants are calmer
  • They have more focus and attention
  • Better at planning
  • More creativity (but only if it’s unstructured)
  • Better grades
  • Better memory

In the study, they also acknowledged that learning a musical instrument also increases cognitive function but made the argument that sports like martial arts are superior because children naturally love to run, play, and do physical activities.

Boosting Self-Confidence

One unique feature of martial arts is the development of self-confidence.

Martial arts teach a person how to defend themselves.

While it’s never desirable for a physical altercation to happen, at least having some skills and a game plan for what to do gives a person a greater sense of self-confidence.

On top of that many martial arts like Karate emphasize moral character and values like respect, humility, perseverance, and doing the right thing. All of these qualities have a positive effect on a person’s life.

Another side benefit is that it’s a great way to make friends.

When you do an activity in common with another person that is unique like Karate or another martial art, it’s easy to make friends and relate to each other.

Is Karate the Best Martial Art for Special Needs

There are a wide array of different martial arts. Some are hugely popular, while others are less well-known.

But, here is my view on whether Karate is the best martial art for people with special needs:

Overall, Karate is one of the best but not necessarily the best martial art for people with special needs. The martial arts that are superior to the rest for people with special needs are: Taekwondo, Karate, Wrestling, Judo, and Krav Maga. 

To get a really good idea of what martial art is the best for people with special needs I evaluated all of the different martial arts based on:

  • How hard it is to learn
  • The rate of injury
  • How easy it is to find a place to train it (how popular it is)
  • How applicable it is to self-defense
  • The emphasis on moral values in the curriculum

I gave each martial art a score from 1 to 5.

5 is the best, and 1 is the worst. I gave double the points as part of a score out of 10 for martial arts that emphasize moral values.

In my estimation, students and instructors will be more accepting and welcoming of people with disabilities.

Here’s a table that shows the results:

Difficulty to learnRate of injuryAvailability of an academyApplicability for self-defenseEmphasis on moral valuesTotal
Krav Maga3534823
Kung Fu25221021
Brazilian jiu jitsu1101443

Based on the specific special needs of a person can be a factor as well. The main difference between martial arts is overall whether they are a striking or a grappling martial art. 

Striking martial arts are where you predominantly learn kicks and punches. On the other hand, a grappling martial art emphasizes throws, trips, and takedowns.

Here’s a table that shows which martial arts are striking martial arts and which ones are grappling martial arts:

Striking martial artsGrappling martial arts
Krav magaSambo
Kung fuBrazilian jiu jitsu
Aikido (both)
Combat sambo (both)

Does Karate Help Kids With Anger Issues

Some children are naturally more aggressive or have emotional tendencies that cause them to get angry a lot. Martial arts are known to develop discipline, as well as, moral values like respect.

But, below is a full rundown of whether Karate helps kids with anger issues.

Overall, studies have found Karate does help kids with anger issues. A review of over 500,000 students found that Karate and other martial arts only have a minor effect on aggression. Also, studies have shown that any physical sport (including Karate), makes children calmer.

In Karate there is what is called a kiai. This is where you do a move in the air and yell really loud.

This provides a constructive outlet for a child’s anger and will expend some of it. 

Styles of Karate that are full contact can employ the use of hitting pads. This is also very common in other martial arts like boxing, and kickboxing. 

Hitting pads is also a great way to tire out an angry child to the point where they have no energy to be angry. It helps to expend pent-up aggression in a creative way.