André Langevin says karate has improved his autistic son Philippe's motor skills, focus, and ability to communicate. Now he and his son are hoping other families can benefit from their experience. Together, they teach weekly karate classes to children with autism spectrum disorder and their parents. 

"The feeling I have is incredible," he says. "I became passionate about it, giving people faith in their children. That they can do something, that they can have a big influence.We can help them improve. There is no doubt about it in my mind," he says.  

Identifying autism spectrum disorder is becoming more common. Health Canada says international studies suggest one in every 150 to 160 children has autism. But the effects vary widely, ranging from relatively mild to debilitating.

'We've seen a dramatic improvement... It's amazing what it has been doing for him,'- Ian Fitzpatrick, father

Those with more severe forms of the disorder may benefit from treatment. But in Montreal there's a huge backlog when it comes to government-funded early intervention services for autistic children. Some parents spend years on the waiting list. Others spend tens of thousands of dollars for privately provided treatment. 

Montreal Autism Centre psychologist Erwin Neumark​ says he does recommend martial arts training in some cases. 

"It is one small component at the right time. It's not going to turn a child non-autistic. It can, if done at the right time, be the appropriate mechanism for a lot of things. Going beyond the basics of focus, attention and imitations, it can be the beginnings of socialization and many of the other deficits in autism."

Langevin says he hopes families will consider karate as supplementary therapy. 

Journey began with acceptance

Philippe was four years old when he was diagnosed with autism and his father had a tough time coming to terms with the diagnosis. 

"I felt really bad, I started basically to cry. I had a feeling there was something wrong with him but I didn't want to believe it. And actually it took me a couple of years to accept it," says Langevin.

Once he did accept it, the black belt and RCMP officer decided to try karate as therapy.

Philippe says the classes helped his focus and confidence from the start. Perhaps more important that anything else, he really enjoyed it. 

"It is beautiful patterns to replicate and it is good to concentrate on something else than the daily worries," says Philippe.

His father says it made a big difference to his condition overall. Today, at 19 years old, Philippe is studying chemistry at McGill University.

"When I really started to realize the improvement that my son had made I cried. I cried about three months for joy. You have to live it to understand it," says Langevin. 

Helping others with karate

Four years ago, Langevin and his son began teaching karate classes together in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. In April 2013, they decided to reach out to the English-speaking community with classes in Vaudreuil-sur-le-Lac, just west of Montreal.

Ian Fitzpatrick has been attending the karate classes in Vaudreuil-sur-le-Lac since April with his eight-year-old son Brian. He says the course has made a big difference.

Brian Fitzpatrick

Brian Fitzpatrick, 8, has been attending karate classes in Vaudreuil since April. (CBC)

"We've seen a dramatic improvement in his autism. His motor skills have improved. His speech has improved. His focus has improved. His school results have improved because of his focus. It's amazing what it has been doing for him," says Fitzpatrick. 

For Fitzpatrick, the weekly ritual has improved his relationship with his son as well. 

"It really created a bonding agent between me and my son. It's priceless," he says. 

Langevin says he hopes other parents are inspired by his students improvements. But he says unconditional love and acceptance are even more powerful than karate.