Robert Schroeder : click for home page
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Peace Through Strength
Dealing with the frustrations of parenting to an autistic child by going for a black belt.

The Washington Post Magazine
April 21, 2002

Carol Hassan is in the zone. Kicking, punching and blocking her way across the red-and-blue mat of the dojang, she is focused, confident. With her next belt test a day away, she is putting in extra practice before her regular Friday class at Mountain Kim Tae Kwon Do in Vienna. Effort has colored her sweating face crimson. You can hear her dedication in the snap of her uniform as she executes a round kick under the watchful eyes of Myung Kang, her instructor.

"One more time, go!" Kang commands. She kicks. Snap!

Hassan, 47, a lifelong athlete, does tae kwon do for many reasons. The workout, for one. She also competes and has won tournaments. And then there is the mental side of the art, which she sums up as "good attitude, strong spirit."

It is the psychic reinforcement inherent in tae kwon do — as well as the physical release —that helps Hassan get through her days with her 13-year-old son, Omar, who is autistic. Hassan is matter-of-fact when it comes to discussing her son. He is "nonverbal." She must dress him, feed him and bathe him. And when he screams or bangs on things to get attention, it is she who must listen and wait for the fit to pass.

Since she quit her job as an obstetrician back in 1997, she has been Omar's constant companion. She often finds her energy "zapped." She must supplement her maternal tenderness with a resolute, personal toughness.

And so it is that Hassan finds herself back at Mountain Kim on a cloudy Saturday, going for a milestone — her black belt. Hassan does fighting combinations, dance-like martial exercises, sparring and, finally, board-breaking. Five times in a row, she reduces the pine to kindling.

Two-and-a-half hours later, Hassan has her prize. For the first time all afternoon, she allows herself a wide smile. But one thing is missing: Omar. He couldn't come to the dojang with the rest of her family and watch her test; he's at home, waiting with a sitter.

She misses him when they're not together and gets anxious to see him. Reenergized, she makes quickly for the door.

Her spirit is newly strong. Her attitude, positive. It's time to go home, to Omar.

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