Every mixed martial artist has their own pre-fight rituals, a mix of physical and mental preparations that uniquely prepare them for the task of stepping into a ring or cage and facing another human being in hand to hand combat. For Serena “Southpaw” DeJesus, that includes CBD oil and noise cancelling headphones to help her cope with her sensitivities to light and sound, and making sure that the officiant understands her issues so that they can avoid any unexpected and unnecessary contact – like grabbing her forearms while going over the rules – that might throw her off before the bell rings.
She lets any potential trash talk roll off her back and smiles through the interviews, weigh-ins, and face-off. (“One, because I know I’m finally going to get to eat,” she laughs. “And two, because the fun part’s coming where I get to throw hands and throw knees. Everything I’ve been killing myself for.”) Once backstage, though, she has to focus on mindful breathing and visualization to keep her anxiety at bay.
These are some of the techniques that the 25-year-old and her coaches have developed, through trial and error, to help her navigate the MMA world as an autistic fighter.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is currently diagnosed in approximately 1 in 68 people. Although the characteristics and needs vary with each individual – there’s a popular saying in the autism community that “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism” – issues with socialization, fine motor skills, sensitivity to sensory stimuli, and intense focus on areas of interest are common among many people on the autism spectrum.
Autism is more likely to be diagnosed in boys, but that might have more to do with the current stereotypes surrounding the condition than gender. Medical experts often misinterpret or miss the way that symptoms present in other people, leaving many on the spectrum underdiagnosed and without the proper support to help them navigate the world. It took Serena DeJesus 13 years and countless misdiagnoses and unhelpful treatments before she was finally diagnosed with a form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome. A few years later, she was lucky enough to stumble onto something that both inspired her interests and helped her cope with her other issues: mixed martial arts training.
Fresh out of high school, Serena DeJesus turned to martial arts for a new challenge in life. The learning curve was steep for someone whose training background was limited to some childhood Taekwondo and a significant amount of video game playing, but she soon found herself thriving in her new environment. She also discovered that training was helping her cope with some of autism-related issues.
Far from overwhelming her, sparring and fighting have actually helped her to prevent or dampen sensory overload. “It’s very weird. I’m getting hit in the face and squished like a pancake. That should set me off more, right? Well, it kind of did, but that’s also about learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. And when my body gets tired, my mind is so zen. You can be dying on the floor and be like ‘That was great! I’m good now.’”
It’s also improved her overall wellbeing. “Before this, I was actually180 pounds. I was staying inside. I was just not socializing, playing video games, watching stuff. This really helps me feel better about myself mentally and physically.”
Joining Syndicate MMA in Las Vegas has also given her a sense of community, which isn’t always easy to come by for people who can struggle with socialization. “The gym is my social spot. because i know that all of the drama, all of the nonsense finds itself eventually out of the gym. It’s helped me build bonds.”
MMA was far more than just therapy for Serena DeJesus, though. It was also her calling. Since winning her first amateur fight in 2014, Southpaw has earned an impressive 5-2 record and is now working toward her pro debut.
Autism has provided her with some challenges that her non-autistic peers and competitors don’t have to worry about, like figuring out how to handle the bright lights and screaming crowds when she’s fighting at major events. But some of those trials have also had unexpected benefits. It takes her a little longer to learn new moves, for example. “I focus on everything, each foot movement, body rotation. Because I’m so focussed on these fine little details, all of obvious things go out the window. So I’ll be like ‘Can I see that another time?… Probably four more times?’ I need that little boost and thankfully my coach is very good about showing me a few times so I’m not lost.”
According to her mother Billie, though, it’s that very attention to detail that makes her such a good instructor when she teaches Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to the gym’s younger students. “She’s able to break it down for them in a way they understand,” Billie says.
Serena DeJesus seems surprised but pleased by the observation. “It makes me so happy teaching the kiddos. They love me a lot and I really do try to help them all.”
Helping the next generation – especially autistic kids – is important to DeJesus. She knows how much martial arts have helped her and she’s eager to do her part to help other experience those benefits, too. In addition to teaching, Southpaw is also an ambassador for Fighting For Autism, an organization dedicated to autism awareness, anti-bullying programs, and martial arts-based therapy for children on the spectrum.
“I don’t care about being super famous. If I end up at Conor McGregor level, I’m just fine with it. Whatever. But as long as I make someone else on the spectrum try something they might not like to do. Maybe they want to go play sports for the first time. Maybe they want to get new friends or something. If they’re like ‘I did it because Serena did something hard,’ that’s what I want.”