BRIDGEWATER — Steven McDonough, a lanky redhead from Bridgewater, is like many 12-year-old boys, shy and spare with words when talking to strangers. Warming up before a karate class at Bridgewater Martial Arts, he cracked a wary smile when asked whether learning the sport was hard.
“At first,” he said softly, eyes averted from the adult asking the question. “But then it got easier.”
As a youngster, Steven was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, which applies to children and adults on the autism spectrum but who do not fully meet the criteria for autism or Asperger’s syndrome. His parents sought programs that would help him, and a neurologist at Boston Children’s Hospital suggested karate lessons, said his mother, Jo-Ellen McDonough. Steven was enrolled in Bridgewater Martial Arts, with studio owner and sensei John Hatfield.
“We put him in karate,” the mother said as her boy warmed up at the studio one recent afternoon, “and it was a godsend.”
That was seven years ago. Steven, who his mother says focuses on tasks significantly better than he did before learning the lessons that the discipline of karate imparts, is now a black belt. He helps Hatfield lead the younger children in exercises, snapping his hands and feet out before him to show them the proper way.
It was the example of Steven being helped by karate that was part of the reason Hatfield and Maureen Hancock, a spirit medium from Bridgewater known mostly for her “Postcards from Heaven” programs, recently formed a nonprofit called Kids Action Initiative.
Hatfield and Hancock say it’s a first-of-its-kind program for children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, providing free karate training for children whose families meet the income requirements.
Hatfield, a 7th-degree black belt in Kempo karate, a form of the martial art, first got the idea to teach the discipline to autistic children from one of his instructors at the studio, Ricky Duarte, also one of Hatfield’s best friends. Duarte, who had a severely autistic child, committed suicide in 2008.
“The strain of being parents of an autistic child, financially and emotionally, is tremendous,” said Hatfield, adding that he and Duarte, just prior to his death, had talked about creating a program for autistic children. “Most families don’t have the resources for programs like this, so we wanted it to be available to all. That’s what led to eventually forming the nonprofit.”
Training autistic children means modifying the program in subtle ways, he said, such as eliminating bright clothing on instructors that may trigger an outburst. But the benefits are the same for anyone taking karate, he said.
“They’re part of something larger than themselves; they master steps, little steps; they progress by inches, not miles,” he said. “Studies show that they’re much more adept at learning after taking karate.”
“They tend to do much better with individual sports than team sports,” added Hancock. “And they do better in school as a result; they focus better, work better with peers, and their behavior improves.”
Hancock and Hatfield grew up in Avon and went to school together at Norfolk County Agricultural High School, reconnecting about a year ago via social media. Hancock, of Bridgewater, is a Reiki master and shiatsu therapist and holistic nutritionist as well as spirit medium. She will provide hands-on healing, acupressure, and nutritional recommendations as part of Kids Action Initiative. She had experience setting up other nonprofits and helped Hatfield create this one.
“Once we get this going, we’ll offer additional therapies like dance, movement, touch, and already have volunteers willing to teach them,” Hatfield said. “Autistic kids thrive with things like that.”
Also involved in the teaching is fellow sensei Meghan Boyle, a physical education instructor in Middleborough public schools. Boyle also has experience working with autistic children and said the rewards of doing so are immediate and satisfying.
“They smile — that’s the best part for us; you can see they’re having a great time,” Boyle said.
In addition to teaching karate, Hatfield at one time was a nurse in the adolescent psychiatric unit at Pembroke Hospital, where he saw children with autism who were lashing out and had to be physically restrained.
“We were picking up the broken pieces of these kids,” he said. “I remember thinking that these kids didn’t have mental disorders; they had social disorders.”
He said he knew there had to be a better way to reach them and would later take a course on autism with Dr. Celine Saulnier, then clinical director of the autism program at Yale University, who advised him how to start a program using martial arts in early intervention for children on the autism spectrum.
Parents of autistic children who take karate with Hatfield include Gordon Laws of Halifax, whose son, Grant, attends Hatfield’s classes. Laws said the discipline Hatfield teaches, once having a misbehaving Grant stand in front of the class in one position for 45 minutes, cannot be understated.
“We have never seen him exercise that sort of control over his body for such an extended period of time,” Laws wrote to Hatfield about his son. “Distractibility and hyperactivity continue to be challenges for Grant, and they were far worse at that time in his life. To see him exercise that sort of control was basically miraculous.”
Kids Action Initiative is free for families with annual incomes of $40,000 or less. Above that, there’s a sliding scale, Hatfield said, adding that exceptions can be made. The usual cost is $150 a month.
Hatfield said he often thinks about his friend Duarte, how he’d be happy to see the idea they shared coming to life in Kids Action Initiative.
The first class was held on May 19, with six youngsters signed up. One of them was Duarte’s son, Alex.
“Absolutely, this program is a tribute to Ricky’s memory,” Hatfield said, “and to any parent who faces the challenges of raising an autistic child.”
The nonprofit is holding a fund-raiser Friday at Port 305 Restaurant in Quincy’s Marina Bay from 7 to 9 p.m. There will be appetizers created by executive chef Marc Vierbickas and an auction. Hancock will mingle with guests, doing some psychic readings, she said. Tickets are $100.
Another fund-raiser will be held June 13 at Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School, with tickets going for $25. For information, visit www.maureenhancock.com, www.kidsactioninitiative.com, and www.bridgewatermartialarts.com.