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Taekwondo black belt an accomplishment for autistic girl, 8

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Justin M. Bowen

Sonya Dilks practices her high kicks with master Dan Jackson at the DoJang World Training Center in Henderson on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010. Sonya, who is autistic, recently earned her black belt in taekwondo.

Sonya Dilks

Sonya Dilks breaks a board held by instructor Dan DeNuccio at the DoJang World Training Center in Henderson on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010. Sonya, who is autistic, recently earned her black belt in taekwondo. She is 8 years old.

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Beyond the Sun

The DoJang

When 8-year-old Sonya Dilks, a student of taekwondo, stepped onto the mat on a recent afternoon, she was instantly at ease. She high-fived one classmate and took a gentle jab at another.

But the girl on the mat barely seemed to resemble the girl who just moments before had been in her instructor’s office, with her parents, as they offered words of encouragement for an upcoming competition. The Sonya who stood in the office clutched her favorite stuffed animal, uttered no more than a dozen words and frequently blushed.

Sonya, who on Sunday earned her black belt, is autistic. She’s been training at the DoJang martial arts center, near the intersection of Horizon Ridge Parkway and Eastern Avenue in Henderson, since she was 2 years old.

Her parents and her instructors have been learning about autism while Sonya has mastered taekwondo. It might seem counterintuitive: an autistic child and a training that requires the utmost discipline and patience. But ever since her parents, David and Olivia Dilks, first brought her to martial arts master Dan Jackson, Sonya has been defying the odds.

Sonya is one of Jackson’s youngest students to earn a black belt.

“I’m going to work here,” Sonya said at one point. That’s OK with mom and dad: The martial arts have “given her direction,” Olivia Dilks said. “We’re so proud. It opens up so much for her.”

The test itself reflects the progress Sonya has made: she meditated for eight hours and fasted for a day, and she is demonstrating her mastery of taekwondo, sparring with instructors and breaking boards with her bare hands.

“I can’t sneak up on her anymore,” said David Dilks, as Sonya burst into a fit of giggles. “She beats up on me every night,” he joked.

The Dilks started bringing Sonya to the DoJang before they knew she was autistic. Her older brothers, Bryant and Tristan, both now 10, were enrolled in classes. Training got off to a rough start: Sonya ran around in circles a lot, Jackson said.

But they stuck with it. In a way, the three of them have learned together how to help Sonya. Some days, she’ll still protest before practice begins or struggle with following the instruction, but the trio has learned triggers -- she responds to colors as code words, for example -- to keep Sonya focused.

“You do have your highs and your lows. It’s like a chess game. You have to think three steps ahead of the child to get them to do what you want them to do,” David Dilks said. “It’s a train, and you have to get it back on the track.”

The Dilks credit Sonya’s teacher’s patience for her success. And although he’s clearly taught her well -- 2 to 4 percent of students receive a black belt, Jackson said -- the 8-year-old has taught him something, too.

“I always believed I could do it with her. I just didn’t know how long it was going to take to reach her,” said Jackson, who has trained for 35 years and earned a gold medal at the U.S. Taekwondo championships. “It was an experience for me. She taught me how to deal with people in different ways. Everyone doesn’t come out like a cookie factory.”

Since taking on Sonya as a student, Jackson said he’s added eight other special needs students at The DoJang, where about 80 students are in training. Sonya is a “born leader,” he added, and she has been instrumental in assisting her classmates.

Jackson, his fellow instructors and Sonya’s classmates have become like an extended family, Olivia Dilks said. They go through “the highs and the lows” together.

They all found satisfaction in her accomplishment.

Black belt in hand, Sonya might give swimming or tennis a try, two sports that are well suited for autistic children, her parents said. She’s already found a tennis racket, Olivia Dilks said.

And with one in 110 children afflicted with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Olivia Dilks said she hopes others feel encouraged by Sonya’s story in the midst of the daily struggles that come with the condition.

“When we first found out she was autistic, they said it was going to get worse before it got better. It was really hard,” she said. “But we kept going. Never give up -- that’s what I’ve always said to her. Just because you have special needs doesn’t mean you can’t be as good as anybody else.”

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