For Autism Awareness Month, Ricardo Almeida tells of how jiu-jitsu is helping his son Renzo

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Ricardo, his son Renzo, his daughter Flavia. Photo: Ricardo Almeida’s archives

April is Autism Awareness Month. Supporting this cause, GRACIEMAG reached out to black belt teacher Ricardo Almeida, owner of RABJJ academy in New Jersey, NY, for some guidance on how practicing Jiu Jitsu is beneficial to children diagnosed with autism.

Almeida has an accomplished carrier in Jiu Jitsu and MMA. Besides being a world-class competitor, Almeida is also a renowned coach. He trains world champions in Jiu Jitsu, Submission Wrestling and Mixed Martial Arts, like former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. Ricardo is a veteran of the UFC and Pride. Nowadays, Almeida is officially retired from competition, focusing most of his time at the RABJJ Academy. Recently, he became an Official MMA judge for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board.

In this exclusive interview, Professor Ricardo tells us how he suspected that his son Renzo, now 12, had autism and explains the benefits of Jiu Jitsu that can positively affect children to overcome this disease.

According to http://www.autismspeaks.org:

“Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Autism appears to have its roots in very early brain development. However, the most obvious signs of autism and symptoms of autism tend to emerge between 2 and 3 years of age. ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances. Some persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math and art. Autism statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 68 American children. Studies also show that autism is four to five times more common among boys than girls. An estimated 1 out of 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls are diagnosed with autism in the United States. ASD affects over 2 million individuals in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide. Moreover, government autism statistics suggest that prevalence rates have increased 10 to 17 percent annually in recent years. There is no established explanation for this continuing increase, although improved diagnosis and environmental influences are two reasons often considered.”

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GM: When did you find out Renzo had autism?

Ricardo Almeida: When Renzo was 4-5 years old he began to miss a few developmental milestones when it comes to socializing. He wouldn’t interact with other children on a playground for example, always looking to do what other children do but on his own. He also began to show repetitive behavior, which is one of the characteristics of children in the spectrum. When Renzo was diagnosed at 5 years old he had great difficulty expressing himself verbally and couldn’t put together meaningful sentences; his communication was basically one word at a time.

GM: How long has Renzo has been training BJJ?

Ricardo: Renzo began training in 2009 when he was 7 years old.

GM: How does Jiu Jitsu help him?

Ricardo: The structure of a Martial Arts class is extremely beneficial for kids in the Autism Spectrum. Almost all martial arts classes follow a similar structure: Warm up, Technique, Games and conclusion. This structure allows kids in ASD spectrum to flourish. When kids know what to expect and they clearly understand what is coming next, they are able to perform in class perfectly. Renzo still has difficulty with the “rolling” aspect of class, as he is very sensitive to the grabbing, pushing and pulling that happens in a live sparring session. He sometimes doesn’t know what to do and becomes frustrated. But with the help of his instructors, everyday he learns something new and the confidence he gains from being in class as well as his improved strength and coordination have been essential to his development. Another very important benefit for Renzo has been the social one. It is hard for him to make friends so his Jiu Jitsu classmates have a key role in his social development.

GM: A while ago you participated in a fundraising campaign that was a SUP (Stand Up Paddle) race around the island of Manhattan dedicated to Autism research, right? Tell us about this experience.

Ricardo: This event is called the Sea Paddle NYC. It is an annual fundraiser event for Autism Awareness and Environmental issues. I did it in 2010 and in 2011. My brother Flavio Almeida joined me. It is a 28-mile paddle around the Island of Manhattan that teas about 6 hours to complete.

Watch Ricardo Almeida talking about the event:

Now, check out a video from the SUP event:

Learn more about Autism at:

http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/autism/detail_autism.htm

http://www.autism-society.org/about-autism/

http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/index.html

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