After motivating dozens of autistic youths in Hialeah to improve their focus, discipline and socialization, a karate instructor recently launched a training program for autistic youths in Doral, at the Legacy Park coliseum.
Venezuela-born sensei Francisco Santander, 50, a former banker, heads the Exceptional Wellness dojo.
Santander said that one of the key successes of his program is helping his karate students to concentrate for a couple of minutes. When they began, they could barely do it for a few seconds..
“It’s fantastic to see how the kids find a mental oasis through karate,” Santander said. “The kids go from meditating for five or 10 seconds to a couple of minutes. Karate catches their attention, without upsetting them.”
In August of 2018, Santander reached an agreement with the South Florida Charter School in Hialeah, where he trains nearly 50 autistic kids aged 14 to 18. He said the parents have told him that they are very grateful for the improvements in their conduct.
“One mother thanked me because her son, who is autistic and has problems speaking, has started to say hello to her.” Santander said. “These kinds of anecdotes tell us that we’re on the right path. The kids make progress, specially in socialization.”
The students do not hit each other during their training, only their teacher. Santander works in collaboration with people who are certified in special education.
The Hialeah group of autistic karate kids gathered on Aprl 26, a Friday, at the West Hialeah E-library to show off the skills they have been learning under Santander. He noted that the program operates thanks to the sponsorship of the Step Ahead Program and The Children Trust.
“Develolping skills in karate is not just a matter of exchanging punches. It’s a matter of controlling the body,” Santander said. “The mind has to tell the body how to do things.”.
Nicholas Spence, 17, said karate helps him to stay healthy and be prepared to defend himself.
“Practicing karate makes me feel strong,” he added after delivering a couple of powerfull punches to his sensei as part of his training.
Another student, Alicia Barros, 16, from Honduras, said that karate “helps me to think better ... it helps me to focus.”
The program promoted by Santander has drawn a lot of attention locally, and more than 50 students are expected to register for the training sessions at the Legacy coliseum, 1400 82nd Ave.
Deputy Doral mayor Claudia Mariaca said the karate program for autistic children will help families with special needs to access activities that improve their quality of life.
Doral parks department director Barbara Hernandez said the agreement between the municipality and Santander is for one year, with the option to renew.
The agreement requires students to pay $110 for an eight-week training session. Classes will be held Mondays and Fridays. Santander will get 70 percent of the fees, and the other 30 percent will go toward the maintenance of the Coliseum.
“We’re always looking for programs that help all the groups in our community,” said Mariaca. “And like some of the other programs we have in Doral parks, we continue to expand them to families with special needs.”
Santander said he hopes the program will bring in sponsors who will help him expand to other parts of the county.
“I am very satisfied with the impact our proposal is having. It is a unique program,” he said. “Karate truly helps these kids.”