Sparring with autism: Social Ecology Ph.D student studies how martial arts training helps kids with autism cope


Be like water. Change. Adapt to shifting circumstances.

These kid martial artists don’t spar with each other. But they do learn a host of martial arts techniques – boxing, kickboxing, grappling – to use correctly in different situations. They learn to kick gentler if training partners aren’t holding protective pads. They learn never to use their skills at home or school, but that it’s acceptable to defend themselves against attackers and flee.

They learn cognitive flexibility. And for children with autism, who often struggle with rigid thinking, that’s not always easy to do.

At the OC Kickboxing & Mixed Martial Arts academy in Irvine, kids with autism often start unable to sit still for a few minutes. In a matter of months, they are focusing on a 45-minute class. They are better regulating their emotions and interacting socially with others. Their anxiety is lessening.

“A lot of kids are improving and a lot of kids are doing things that nobody ever thought they could do,” says Janice Phung, a Ph.D student at the School of Social Ecology, who is researching how martial arts training helps improve cognitive and social functioning in kids with autism. “I remember somebody saying to us, ‘Well you don’t actually expect the kids to actually do real martial arts.’ And I remember thinking that if that’s how we felt then of course they’re not going to be able to do it because that’s your expectation of them. We set the bar high because we knew they could reach it with just a bit of extra support.”

Phung, who is 28 and recently received UCI’s prestigious Chancellor’s Club Fund for Excellence Fellowship, joined OC Kickboxing when she moved to Irvine several years ago. Many students with autism had already grown under the tutelage of gym founder Daniel Sullivan, co-owner Robert Freeman and the other instructors, but there were only anecdotal reports to show its effects.

So in March of 2016, Phung helped redesign the martial arts course as an intervention program with standardized data collection procedures – data that will be used for Phung’s dissertation under the guidance of her advisor, Wendy Goldberg, associate dean for academic programs at the School of Social Ecology.

Both before and after the 13-week program, parents fill out reports scoring their children on various behavioral indicators, such as impulsiveness and emotional dysregulation. Phung and her research assistants observe the students in social situations and quantify their interactions. A computer program times the children for mental speed and accuracy.

While working for a nonprofit after earning her bachelors degree at UCLA in 2009, Phung witnessed the challenges faced by families affected by autism, and was inspired by their strength – a personal experience that grounds her research.

“Data are not just numbers, data are people. I think a lot of times we lose that. We forget as scientists who we are working for,” Phung says. “I think we owe it to the families and the people in our research to make sure, essentially, that we deliver what we promise, that we provide the knowledge and the understanding that participants want to know. But the research also has implications for their lives. It’s not just that the implications are for academics, and they never hear of it again. Families want to know we’re working to help their kids.”

That socially-conscious mindset matches the School of Social Ecology’s goal of leveraging science to solve problems. “I think that’s what makes Social Ecology so unique – that is part of the mission,” Phung says.

Phung is also a graduate mentor and leadership coach for DECADE Plus, a mentoring program for first-generation undergraduate college students. Phung and her older brother are both first-generation college student whose parents both left Vietnam after the war, her father by refugee boat. He spent two years in a Malaysian refugee camp after the boat sank and he had to swim to shore.

“Hearing about all the challenges my parents went through to come here is a really big motivator for me to continue to take advantage of the opportunities they gave us,” Phung says. “They’re the reason I’m here, and they’re why I keep working to create opportunities for those who need just a bit of extra support to reach their goals.”

--April 4, 2017