Sensory Integration Disorders

I took a short workshop on working with Special Education students last week. It got me thinking about how common low-grade Sensory Integration Disorders are. A Sensory Integration Disorder is a developmental problem, meaning it appears as a child ages.

Special Education is constantly redefining and re-categorizing its terms. These categories also have a habit of overlapping. Even highly functional people can show signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Asperger syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, or my favorite-- Learning Disability.

I've known quite a few martial artists who were Obsessive about martial arts to the point where they really could not handle someone changing the subject. In some sense, it is people who have an insane ability to limit their focus that can also achieve greatness in a field which requires discipline. Some of them really can not sit still. I myself had no patience for sitting in class and listening to a teacher after age 14.

What was interesting about the workshop is that I realized that there is a significant percentage of people who love martial arts because they have some kind of Sensory Integration Disorder. Martial arts practices make these people feel good!

For instance, many people who have Sensory Integration Disorders like to hold or squeeze things in their hand. Squeezing their hand into a fist (or the knife hand shape) feels good. Holding a difficult stance while the teacher or another student pushes against one's body, testing "structure and root," is also the kind of thing that feels good to a person with a Sensory Integration Disorder. Wearing weights, armor, or very particular clothing is also helpful.

Part of what characterizes a Sensory Integration Problem is not being sure where your body is, or what your body is doing. So conditioning exercises which put pressure or impact on the skin and bones actually feel good, they help a person with this problem integrate. Building up muscles may also feel good. As does wrestling, or even getting caught in a football style pileup!

When you think about it, fighting is the art of giving other people a sensory integration problem! I'm not just talking about clocking someone-- the head fake, cross hands, the spiral punch, shrinking/expanding-- any kind of unexpected or unpredictable movement can cause a sensory integration problem in your opponent. All martial arts also teach us to improve our sensory integration so that we are not "phased" by what ever tricks or surprises are thrown our way.

Push-hands really, when you think about it, is a bunch of games that develop better sensory integration. When you lose at push-hands, especially to a far superior player, it feels like you just floated off balance. Often you can't really even figure out what happened. Often beginners are so sensorially disoriented that they don't even notice they have lost!

The Wind (Xun, or third) palm change in Baguazhang uses a particularly unnerving technique to disorient the opponent. We brush very lightly over the surface of our opponent's skin/body, not usually hard enough to move them, but very quickly covering as much body surface as possible. The effect of these quick light swipes is that it is hard to feel where the opponent is, and that moment of disorientation often effects balance too. It feels like you are fighting a ghost.

The therapeutic aspects of martial arts should be more widely acknowledged. Learning to fight is good.