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January 29. 2006 8:01AM

Young man with autism beats odds to earn black belt in karate
By Beth Beasley
Times-News Correspondent

Big accomplishments are made with many little steps. This is the case with Michael Joyce Jr., who recently received a black belt in karate. What makes this accomplishment stand out more than usual is that Joyce, 27, struggles with autism.

If you ask Joyce what brought him from beginner to the ultimate-success status of holding a black belt in karate, he sums it up in one word: "Perseverance."

Joyce's journey started six years ago when his parents brought him to observe a class at Karakido Karate on Four Seasons Boulevard.

"He didn't have much interest in anything before karate," says his mother, April Joyce. After that first class, Joyce begged his parents to join the other students on a regular basis. A transformation took place whenever he was on the mat during the two weekly classes -- he became a focused and motivated practitioner of martial arts.

On the karate mat, Joyce's poise sets off his tall, slim build. He holds a steely focus on his fine-featured face as he gracefully moves through the kata routine. When working with a partner on technique, he moves facilely and can be quick to laugh at some mutual mishap.

Success in karate, notes Master Roger Yarborough of Karakido Karate, emphasizes the individual journey and takes personal hurdles into account when evaluating one's progress. Martial arts is open to beginners from all walks of life, from the very young to the elderly and the physically handicapped.

Karate was originally recommended for Joyce because studies have shown it benefits people with autism as well as those struggling with attention deficit disorder. Martial arts may trigger a balance in left-brain and right-brain activity, enhancing focus in its participants. Joyce is especially skilled at Kata, the practice of fighting an invisible opponent. Kata involves a set of routines with specific movements.

Master Yarborough's program of Karakido, which loosely translates as "open yourself to the way of inner power," blends the most effective techniques of martial arts. It stresses flexibility of styles to meet specific needs. For Joyce and most of Yarborough's students, this flexibility is essential to drawing out personal strengths.

"Martial arts has increased the quality of Michael's life," says Yarborough. "He feels empowered and confident, and can more easily branch out and become accomplished in other aspects of life."

There is little doubt Joyce will continue to progress. In class most nights, he is showing other students the techniques he knows. His black belt in karate, his teacher and parents think, is only the beginning of what Joyce will achieve.

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Really good that he can dedicate himself to getting better....but what's up with the stance? Giraffe punching?