About 60 students were entered in Saturday's tournament, competing in Olympic and point sparring, breaking, form and high jumping. Jeff Forby of Murphysboro, Ill., who is grand master over the national Moo Sul Kwan Martial Arts Institute, was on hand to welcome competitors and award medals.
Peak Performance instructor Rick Brashear said self-defense is only one of the benefits for his students.
"We focus on teaching courtesy, integrity, self-control," Brashear said. "It makes a difference in their focus and their confidence."
In some respects, Zach Randolph is like many of Brashear's students at the tae kwon do studio.
Zach comes to class twice a week, where he learns the skills and disciplines of the Korean martial art. In less than three years the Nell Holcomb Elementary fifth-grader has progressed through seven levels of tae kwon do to his current level of brown belt.
But Zach has had to deal with a challenge. He has Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder related to autism. Among the symptoms typical of people with Asperger are clumsiness and difficulties in social interaction.
While he is proud of his accomplishments in tae kwon do, Zach is equally happy with the progress in other areas of his life that he believes are the result of tae kwon do training.
"It's been helping me with school work," Zach said. "Studying my forms [combinations and techniques of tae kwon do] is like studying my spelling words."
Brashear, who has another autistic student, has seen firsthand the progress those students have made.
"I've had [Zach] for two years, and he's really come around socially," said Brashear, who teaches at studios in Scott City, Portageville, Mo., and Sikeston, Mo., in addition to the Cape Girardeau studio.
Connie Hebert, director of the autism center, said the evidence that martial arts instruction is helpful to those with autism is anecdotal so far. But she has heard enough from parents to be a believer.
"I've known families that have enrolled children in martial arts of one kind or another, and they've always been pleased with the results," said Hebert, who oversees the center. It opened Jan. 4 and provides services to several hundred people with autism and their families.
She said the autism center would use the donation from Peak Performance to support summer programs, including a camp that allows autistic campers to participate in physical activities with support.
Hebert said that the nature of martial arts helps people who might naturally be uncomfortable in many social situations.
"The martial arts environment is predictable," said Hebert, creating an atmosphere that is "very conducive to learning." Once autistic students learn the environment, "they feel very comfortable," he said
Zach's mother Linda Randolph said taekwondo has helped her son be more focused and has taught him discipline and self-control.
"We used to have meltdowns when he couldn't get it right," said Linda. "Not any more."
Linda Randolph, who lives north of Cape Girardeau with her husband, Brian, said that taekwondo has helped Zach overcome his physical clumsiness as well.
"It has helped his gross motor skills," said Linda, noting that Zach formerly ran awkwardly, "but now he runs like a normal child."
284 Christine, Cape Girardeau, MO