When you fear your struggles, your struggles consume you. When you face your struggles, you overcome them. Caroline Vance, a white belt that trains at Brazos Valley Mixed Martial Arts under brown belt William “Bubba” Bush, was born with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ASD. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. ASDs affect 1 in 68 children in the U.S and it occurs more often in boys than girls. It is a condition that at times was challenging for Caroline to go about her day to day life, but through the power of Jiu-Jitsu Caroline is able to live a life that she never thought was possible. Here is Caroline’s Jiu-Jitsu journey.
How did you first hear about Jiu-Jitsu and where did you start?
I first heard about Jiu Jitsu from my coach, Bubba Bush. He and I were friends prior to starting and (he) had been trying to get me into the gym for years. I just didn’t have the time, and I was hesitant to start because I’m not a big fan of being touched. So I put it off and put it off and eventually wound up at my Psychologist to come up with new strategies to deal with my social and daily anxieties.
I was drowning in my anxiety. It was at the worst it had ever been. I couldn’t leave the house, or even say more than a few words to strangers. We tried several things, from Yoga and Tai Chi to composing music and painting, and they all helped some, but not at the level my doctor wanted. He did some research and came back to me. He had read about this thing called Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and while it might seem like a bit much, he thought it would help me. He said, “I think that a higher level of physicality will help you to step out from behind your anxieties and shine as a person.”
I reluctantly agreed to try it and got in touch with BVMMA in College Station and set up a time to come in and try a few classes. The night of my first class, I left my house an hour and a half early to get there with time to watch the kids class that was on the schedule. Getting a look at what I was getting into. By happenstance, my car broke down and in the time it took to fix it, I arrived with just enough time to sign a waiver and step onto the mat. The movements were awkward and hard, and the loaner gi top was huge on me, and there were no pants. My knees were scuffed and mat burned after the drill and I sat out from rolling because I wanted to watch and see how it went, but I was hooked. When I drilled, mind was calm for the first time in years. I bought a gi and signed up.
What is your favorite thing to do when training; i.e. rolling, drilling, technique? And why?
I would have to say that working the technique and rolling are tied for favorite. I really enjoy working on technique because I enjoy working out the physics behind a move and figuring out where my body needs to go. It’s like putting together a puzzle, and I love the feeling I get when I finally put the pieces together. Rolling on the other hand is very peaceful. It is the only time in my life that I’m able to just let go, and that’s a very nice feeling.
What obstacles have you had to overcome and how did you overcome them?
One of the biggest obstacles I’ve dealt with has been being around people in such an intimate way. A common misconception about autism, is that we don’t feel as deeply or we lack empathy, but several studies (and of course personal experience) have shown that folks with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) tend to feel much more deeply and much more uncontrollably. So initially, the intimacy of the sport was overwhelming. And crowds at events can be very overwhelming as well.
Although all of this disappears when I’m actually rolling. I’m too busy thinking about not getting choked to be processing the emotion in the moment. It’s helped me to be able to set aside stresses and deal with them much more productively.
How has Jiu-Jitsu helped your condition? And do you think Jiu-Jitsu can be beneficial to others that suffer from ASD?
Jiu Jitsu has helped me learn to set aside overwhelming emotions and process them productively. This is a big deal. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’ve had a melt-down private, or not, you know it can be an embarrassing wave of pure emotion and an uncontrollable storm of: tears, yelling, and even possible self-harm. Most folks who are not autistic tend to learn how to control and set aside their emotions to deal with later, but many of us with ASD never learn that. So emotions ramping up and ramping up and finally the dam breaks. It doesn’t matter where you are, it all comes crashing out.
Jiu Jitsu has helped me to identify and set aside the build-up. I’m able to productively look at what caused the stress and I’m able to deal with it rationally. It kinda gives me the ability to “drill” what I’m supposed to do when I feel the anxiety, and then when it actually hits, I am able to deal with it.
What would you like to say to the readers out there that might think they cannot do Jiu-Jitsu?
Jiu Jitsu is for everyone. It teaches lessons that are good on and off the mat. It might seem intimidating. But it’s one of those things that from the outside looking in, it doesn’t make sense. But from the inside looking out, it’s hard to explain.
Natalie Sugar DiNingrat
Girls in Gis staff writer