Wednesday, July 24, 2024


Autism Doesn’t Deter Black Belt

By James Lomuscio

Westport martial arts instructor Mark Wilkinson says he was more nervous than the student he tested two hours recently for an adult black belt. Image
Mark Wilkinson congratulates Kyle Derman on his achievement. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

“When I started the test, I was more nervous than he was,” Wilkinson, owner of Dynamic Martial Arts on Post Road East, said about Kyle Derman, 20, of Westport.

Kyle, who has studied with Wilkinson for 13 years, is autistic and his instructor’s first special needs student.

“But when he got through the fitness part of it, there was stuff where he would just not quit,” Wilkinson said.

To his relief, Wilkinson said that Kyle’s focus and determination earned him the black belt title, a top achievement capping a long struggle and the instructor’s initial doubts.

“I’m estatic; it’s a big a pump,” said Wilkinson.

Wilkinson recalled that the first couple of hours with young Kyle “were the most strenuous I ever went through.” He said he spent the entire class chasing him around to get him to get him to stop running.

“They were pretty tough because he was not the usual student,” Wilkinson said. “But eventually, we progressed into a level of discipline and focus where he would eventually move up to different levels.”

Marina Derman, Kyle’s mother, said that Kyle, who attends the Foundation School, a special needs school in Milford, has established such trust with Wilkinson, “He will do stuff for Mark that he will not do for anyone else.”

“There’s a lot of research on it, and what’s good about martial arts is that you move, and you build on that move, and that sequential approach helps people with autism in how they feel about the world,” the mother said. “It’s about making the world predictable.”

Marina Derman said that Kyle, who was unavailable to be interviewed, got his first exposure to martial arts when he attended kindergarten birthday party. Kyle’s father, Bryan Derman, asked about classes for his son.

“And all of a sudden there were these classes, and 13 years later we are here with a black belt,” the proud mother said.

Wilkinson said that as Kyle progressed with his classes, he devised new techniques, “different ideas and all kinds of things that led into a program that let us teach more and more special needs kids with easier techniques.”

“I didn’t have to stress as much because of the techniques I leaned with Kyle,” said Wilkinson, showing that teachers also learn from their students.

“I have known challenges in my personal life,” the instructor, who is a two-time cancer survivor, said. “So, I am inspired by the very hard work my students do to advance themselves.”

Wilkinson noted that he is currently forming a nonprofit to to support special needs students as they become too old to receive government financial assistance.

“I’d like to do something, maybe two or three days a week, for older special needs kids, for when they get out of school,” he said.

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