October 21, 2020

A sense of breath – Autism and Boxing

Deirdre Blackie

This paper explores the lived experience of autistic children who attend boxing classes in the inner city of Johannesburg.  Using participant observation as my primary methodology, I spent a year observing a range of children, aged 10 to 21 years, to understand their sensory experience of their world. Many of the children presented as sensorially ‘sensitive’ or conversely ‘seeking’ in the challenging boxing gym environment. There was a distinct ritual that the children engaged in from greetings and preparation, to the classes themselves and then to their final reintegration back into their school classes.  Throughout this process, I observed how the children consciously or unconsciously engaged with or disengaged from their world due to challenges with their internal and external sensory perception, discrimination, processing and modulation.  Many displayed distinct challenges with integrating their sensory experience, this was particularly evident when observing their respiratory system and the conscious effort it took for them to breathe. Their sensory difficulties often impacted negatively on their ability to participate positively with their world.  Challenges with bodily boundaries, feelings of disconnection and even trauma were experienced at a physical, intellectual, emotional, and social level. However, the boxing classes also provided them with a unique environment that enabled them to reconnect with their bodies, engage their parasympathetic nervous systems and ultimately to breathe easier.

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Dee Blackie

About Deirdre Blackie

Deirdre Blackie is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand. Following a 15-year career in business/brand consulting and change management, she started working with communities concerned with child protection, child abandonment and adoption in 2010. She facilitated the creation of a National Adoption Coalition for South Africa in 2011, and since then her primary focus has been on creating awareness and engaging with communities around child protection challenges.  Her PhD research has taken her into the field of disability, with a specific focus on atypical children and critical autism studies. Her presentation is based on research she conducted over the period of a year into the lived experience of children on the autism spectrum who attend boxing classes in the inner city of Johannesburg.