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Thursday, Sep 21, 2017
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Billy Blanks pushes martial arts to help kids with autism

TAMPA - The first time Billy Blanks showed up at karate class, the instructor bet $5 he wouldn't stick it out. Blanks, then 14, seemed like a lot of kids who showed up at the Martin Luther King Center in Erie, Pa., in 1969. Also, Blanks had spent years in special education classes because of dyslexia that went undiagnosed and untreated. The boy knew martial arts offered something different. It would pay off, he told himself, as long as he watched the instructor's every move and practiced every afternoon at the gym. Within six months, the teen's focus improved, at home and at school. In a year, he had earned a black belt.
"It really gave me a chance to see that I could do it, that I could really be successful," said Blanks, who today is known worldwide as the creator of the Tae Bo kick boxing workout. "I was learning how to bring my body under control. I got my mind under control and it gave me confidence." Blanks' personal experience has evolved into a new mission: To introduce physical fitness to children with autism and other special needs. He'll do just that this week in St. Pete Beach, when he leads two community workouts as part of the 2011 National Autism Conference. Social interaction, language and communication are key challenges facing children and adults living with the highly complex autism spectrum disorders. Research shows that regular movement, such as exercise, can help with treatment, especially for children with still-developing brains. Blanks, who still teaches regular classes, said he's seen first hand how music coupled with the fast-paced punching and kicking in his workouts appeal to children with autism. It helps them gain confidence and connect with others. "Most people teach kids that they need to exercise to lose weight," said Blanks, 56. "And for me, exercising is a communication tool." This philosophy applies to anyone, not just children and adults with special needs, Blanks said. A seven-time world karate champion, he used martial arts to help him develop a following and open gyms in Boston and in California. His breakthrough came in the late 1990s when his blend of Tae Kwon Do and boxing transformed him into an infomercial mainstay and celebrity favorite. Blanks knows not everyone likes the gym. It used to intimidate him. His at-home videos aim to help individuals gain confidence one workout at a time, he said. "I want everyone to see that can be successful if they set a goal."

mshedden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7365

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