Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

Gaithersburg martial arts program in helps autistic children to kick it up

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The first time that Sandra Juarez brought her 7-year-old autistic son Aydn to Gaithersburg for karate class, his enthusiasm and engagement in the lessons surprised them both.

As she watched him go through drills with the five other autistic children at CIMA martial arts studio, she laughed to think she assumed Aydn wouldn’t take to it so quickly. He had had hesitations, too.

‘‘He said, ‘I don’t want to; it’s too dangerous.’ Now he doesn’t want to go home,” said Juarez, of Washington.

For the better part of an hour, the six children with Autism Spectrum Disorder punched, kicked — even grabbed Pugarita by the uniform and hurled him backwards over their body.

CIMA masters Javier Carvajal and Frank Pugarita drove the lesson not with the blood and discipline of their harsh martial arts upbringings — Carvajal in Chile and Pugarita in Venezuela — but with an abundance of hugs and high-fives. The program, called ‘‘No Limits,” is about confidence, self-esteem and setting a tone of trust.

‘‘It’s a general need, the contact, the love, the caring,” Pugarita explained after the hour-long session.

‘‘Sometimes, you get a little...,” began Carvajal, gesturing as if his eyes were welled up with tears. ‘‘... coming out because you remember that this kid didn’t move at first, didn’t laugh, and then one class he starts to laugh and run and everybody is like ‘Whoa.’ Everybody. It’s something incredible, it’s something you feel good.”

Carvajal, 41, opened CIMA Studios — Centro Internacional de Martial Arts — at the nondescript warehouse space on Oakmont Avenue in south Gaithersburg less than two years ago. He had been running martial arts programs for local health clubs for about a decade, where before too long, the need for separate, personalized classes for children with special needs was obvious.

Last summer, the nonprofit group Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children in Montgomery Village, formerly of Rockville, approached the studio after learning about its work with special needs children. Once a week, CSAAC brings a class of its students for an after-school session. CIMA offers the smaller, private Saturday session as a supplement.

Next month, CIMA will start teaching students at the Joseph P. Kennedy Institute of Catholic Charities in Washington.

On Saturday, Jill Mayer watched the action and marveled at the progress of her son Aaron Kaufman, 17, of Olney.

She tried to get him interested in baseball, she tried in-line skating. But it has been through martial arts that Aaron has come into his own, she said. Feats she had thought too far-fetched are now the everyday — kicks executed atop a balance beam, drills on a speed punching bag. In November, he earned his orange belt.

‘‘Just to be able to see him do an activity that other kids do, I just grin from ear to ear,” Mayer said.

If she could, she would bring her son to CIMA several times a week.

‘‘It’s a function of how much he smiles. Because for a while, he wasn’t smiling. Now he smiles all the time,” she said as she watched her son with a wide smile of her own. ‘‘He just loves it.”