“The brain can be conditioned to do anything we tell it to.”After high school, people with special needs are often left to find their way without the structure of being on campus all day, and sometimes, without a job or other daily routine.
Tony Rios, owner of My Martial Arts in Dallas, is responding to that concern with adaptive classes aimed at teaching physical fitness as a way of life.
“It helps you prolong your life, especially in an environment where kids and adults with special needs … like to sit around and not be active, so they’re the ones who need it the most,” Rios said.
Highland Park ISD provides shuttles to Rios’ studio for its 15-student transition class who have graduated, but are still in school to help with the change.
Rios set up a GoFundMe page, Growing My Martial Arts For All, to raise funds to expand his program to other school districts.
Originally from Dallas via Carrollton, Rios graduated from The Colony High School and served in the U.S. Air Force for three years before he was injured and left the military to move home.
“The sternness and the structure helps me here … [to be] very systematic,” Rios said. “Repetition, like in the military, has helped me be able to do that with students.”
Rios earned his black belt when he was 15 and became a second-degree black belt at age 17. Now he’s at fourth-degree. He has competed at state, national, and international levels, including the Junior Olympics.
His work with special-needs students began in 2006 while teaching at another martial arts studio in Dallas. In 2008, he met a child with Asperger’s syndrome on top of another autism spectrum disorder.
“His parents wanted him to work out, but they didn’t want to call it that,” Rios said.
Rios started teaching his new student punching moves and agility ladder drills before moving on to martial arts moves.
“Once I did all of that, I then saw that he was progressing. But, I did not like how he was progressing, meaning the time frame,” Rios said. “So, I redesigned everything and came up with a martial arts system.”
To teach classes to people with special needs, Rios went out on his own with the help of an area YMCA location and a small private-training gym.
As more students came calling, Rios needed more space and time, so he opened his own, self-funded, 1,900-square-foot studio. He offers classes six days a week. More than half of his students have special needs.
Soon, he will relocate to a larger location near Bachman Lake.
“The hard part is trying to translate something that we do every day to a level where a 3-to-a-6-year-old can understand it,” Rios said. “I have to show them – that’s over a course of months for some guys. The brain can be conditioned to do anything we tell it to.”
Many clients of the Connecting Point of Park Cities day program for adults with disabilities attend Rios’ classes, said Susan Williams, the agency’s executive director.
“There’s a big need for adults in the area for things to do,” she said. “Tony tailors the classes to fit their needs. Not only is it good for them physically, but socially as well. He really touches so many families in so many ways."