Systema and Autism

February 08, 2016 by Eric Torres  
A few months ago, I was approached by a parent at our school with an interest for his son to learn more about Systema through private classes.
The child has a diagnosis of autism, which is a neurological disorder affecting mainly social and sensory skills.

To start off, the purpose of this article is to offer some of my tips and advice that I have found work well with my young student.

Autism is a Spectrum Disorder ASD, which means that all ASD people experience difficulties in their behavior and social interactions at varying degrees. People with ASD may often be placed under higher to lower functioning categories depending on the level of their social interaction (Autism Ontario Website).

Stephanie Seneff, a Senior Research Scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, has indicated frightening predictions through her research on Autism and its link to environmental toxins. Her research has gone as far as predicting that half of U.S. children will be autistic by 2025, and by 2032, one in two children will end up on the autism spectrum (Seneff, Stephanie Presentation, May 20, 2015 at Autism One in Chicago. Environmental Toxicants and Autism: How to Safeguard Your Children. Retrieved from Autism One; N. Swanson et al., Journal of Organic Systems20145; 9(2): 6--‐37).

Seneff also advises that a growing number of adjuvants, pesticides and toxins found in much of the food sold and consumed in North America with specific attention to Glyphosate, are directly linked to these predictions (R. Mesnage et al.Bio Med Research International 2014; Article ID: 179691). Below is a chart indicating the growing rate of the Autism Spectrum diagnoses:

A Frightening Trend
K. Weintraub, Nature 479, Nov. 3 2011, 22--‐24.

Some things to remember when applying Systema to work with someone with autism or a special need:
  • See the person and not their diagnosis/physical imitations. Don't assume the person can't do something, you're there to show them how they can.
  • Think Systema and view the student in many forms; always changing; always adapting, help your student learn to do and study everything regardless of their physical, developmental or social limitations. However, keep in mind a person with autism may struggle with social queues and their dependence on routine makes it a challenge for any instructor.
  • Systema can be applied to various ages and levels of cognitions and can be started as early as one likes, however, be aware that the person's capacity will limit the progress and level of interaction.
  • Young children with special needs do well with games and activities.
  • Implement breathing from the very beginning to help the child link their breathing to their movement.
  • Children, youth, and adults with autism need special attention to detail and taking a meticulous approach to your work with them will increase one's creativity.
  • Many people with autism are known for their mimicking behavior, thus, if you move soft and smooth, then your student will pick up on this very quickly.
This work will enhance your understanding of Systema fundamentals and principals. Overall, your conscientious approach will increase your sensitivity and overall intuitive abilities. This is simply because you force yourself to teach in a more personalized and caring manner and you view the student as your child and physical guide.

The young boy I teach is currently 13 years of age. When I first began working with him, I found him to have limitations in his ability to follow and respond to verbal direction, spatial awareness, and tolerance to physical contact; anxiety levels were high and he would often refuse certain tasks such as breath holds and rolls. Even though this was a challenge at first, I found integrating Systema breathing worked to ease my student’s anxiety levels and this helped me to add more challenging tasks to his repertoire. Additionally, with relaxation came an increase in the boy’s trust in my guidance as well as his tolerance to touch. Eventually, I was able to add grabs and sudden movements to some of the exercises.

I am currently working on helping my student relax while moving through confined spaces. He often becomes upset when he is unable to crawl through a small space between myself and the wall. I reassure him frequently and remind him to breathe to relax. Repetition is key, and if he is unable to complete the task the first time then, slow movement work is applied, while always reminding him to inhale and exhale.

Every age has its different needs and capacities. Younger children often do well with games and large movements, while adolescents and teens can handle more physical contact and direction. Ultimately, it comes down to a person's interest and patience.


Have your student lay on the ground. Ask him to inhale through his nose and exhale through his mouth. Let him try to breathe this way on his own.

Then, touch the tip of the student’s nose and ask them to do both inhale and exhale through the nose. Touching the student’s nose will work as a prompt or a guide to help your student connect verbal direction to the physical.

Sometimes a person with autism may struggle with making the connection between verbal ques and physical action. Touch is used as a prompt to elicit a reaction.

Then touch the student’s mouth area and ask him to do both inhale and exhale through the mouth.

Work vice versa touching the bridge of the student’s nose on inhale and the side of the student’s mouth to direct her/him to exhale.

Proceed to other parts of the body i.e. the chest area, the stomach and ask the student to inhale from their nose while inflating their chest or stomach. Repetition is very helpful, so take your time with this in order to optimize results.

Now work vice versa touching the chest and stomach area of the student. This will help to provide direction for the student while slowly helping them to accept physical touch and physical interaction with you.

I have also been using breath holds in short intervals of 3-5 seconds which has worked to increase my student’s attention and focus over time.


Fine Motor:
Tell your student to hold your hand. Next redirect him to inhale prior to reaching out for your hand. Gradually increase the speed of these hand grabs. Reverse the action by having you, the instructor, grab the student’s hand first. Work in various breathing applications throughout the exchange.

Gross Motor:
Play ‘follow the leader’ with your student and have him follow your movements. Have him fall, sit, lay, roll, and stand up at various speeds and levels. Integrate inhale or exhale to begin prior to his movement. Show the student the movement and combine movement with physical touch (i.e. place your arm around the student and move together with him).


Lay the student on the ground and have him place his hands on various parts of his body while inhaling and exhaling upon each touch.

Replace your student’s hand with your own hand while constantly instructing your student to either inhale or exhale upon touch. Increase the pressure of your touch as your student begins to accept and trust you. Avoid common trigger areas such as the neck, face, stomach and chest until your student has demonstrated increased relaxation.

Integrate a stick in your work by gently placing the stick on different areas of the student’s body while reminding the student to breathe each time. Repeat the previous exercise while slowly increasing the pressure of the stick to the student’s body.

You can begin these drills by laying next to your partner on the ground. This exercise alone will help to increase emotional and social bond which is often something a person with autism struggles with.

Final Thoughts

Through my previous work in the autism and special needs community, I have come to discover a few important things:
  • Autistic individuals often require constant reassurance and praise, therefore, after every direction to my young student, I praise and congratulate him (even if the task is as simple as inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth). Remember, you may need to repeat yourself several times before getting a result.
  • Patience is indeed a virtue.
  • One must remember that if you are not emotionally interested in the person you're teaching, then, the student will notice your lack of care. Often a person with autism may have limited social interaction, yet, many can also be very receptive and highly sensitive to your mood, tone of voice, direction and even touch.

The beauty of Systema is that it teaches us to remove tension, one of the key elements to help people with autism.

As instructors and Systema practitioners, we develop increased sensitivity, attention to detail, and intuition. These are some essential ingredients that can help to offset the challenges of working with someone with autism or a special need.

Finally, I leave you with this... learn to Know Thyself first before attempting to help another person to find their way.

Whether you are just beginning to learn Systema or have some experience, take a moment to imagine you are a person with a special need and are now receiving some Systema classes. Take the time to inhale and exhale in a thankful way because you are now being given the gift of learning about true breath, tension relief, movement, posture, and best of all, relaxation.

When you teach a challenging student, you will understand yourself more because you will see your own tolerance levels and degrees of patience. Furthermore, your ability to work with a difficult student will make you more analytical, meticulous and adaptable for any setting.

Eric Torres Eric Torres is a certified instructor under Vladimir Vasiliev, teaching regular classes and private sessions at Systema HQ Toronto. He has over 20 years of martial arts experience, including Taekwondo, Karate, Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Western Boxing and MMA, competed in regional and provincial levels.

Eric holds a Masters degree in social work and has done extensive work with homelessness, addictions, mental health of youth and seniors, autism, special needs, young offenders and reintegration.