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Breaking boards and barriers: How martial arts helped 2 people with autism embrace their identities

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- It's easy to see that she's gifted at martial arts, but 29-year-old Alexis Melnick isn't just breaking boards, she's breaking barriers.

"She was diagnosed with autism around 25 years ago," said Greg Melnick, Alexis' father. "It wasn't really known back then, so it's been a tough road. She just clammed up. Between four and five she really shut down."

Greg said Alexis' autism can manifest with outbursts of aggression at times. It's what turned them to martial arts.

“She needed some form of exercise ... the intent was for her to learn more self-control,” said Greg.

Almost eight years ago, Greg enrolled Alexis at CFMAF Martial Arts & Fitness in Colorado Springs. That's where they met Isaac Costley, or as his students call him, "Master C."

Isaac also had a close relationship with autism. His son, Jacob Costley, was diagnosed with it when he was in 2nd grade.

"I definitely felt some kind of isolation," said Jacob. "Sometimes in classes, I'd feel like the weirdo, or the odd one out."

Jacob struggled to find a sense of community, which inspired his dad to create one inside his studio. But in Isaac's classes, kids of all abilities learn side by side.

“I’ve been blessed enough to have people in here who are in wheelchairs who have trained here with me. I don’t exclude. I include,” said Isaac.

Each class is paired with a message.

“Every single person has a challenge, everyone single person has an obstacle, we have to teach them that you can still be your best in spite of that, instead of being limited by that," said Isaac.

For Jacob and Alexis, that message has been an invaluable part of their growth.

"He’s tackled me as I am, instead of as I should be. He meets me on that level, so that we can move forward together," said Jacob.

Greg said signing up Alexis at CFMAF Martial Arts & Fitness has been the most important thing he's done for Alexis as a parent.

"She’s a different person, even now at 29, she’s still growing and changing,” said Greg.

Alexis, who once could not be in the same room as other kids, is now bonding alongside them during class.

Meanwhile, Jacob has been teaching martial arts classes solo for a decade.

“Jake has fought through so many things that others never had to go through, and I let him see that that’s a blessing,” said Isaac. "He has a challenge that is rare, and it makes him valuable. He has a testimony to help all the others in the class to feel as though if they can’t do something, he can tell them 'I did.' Even when he didn’t want to do it, he did. There’s victory in that.”

It’s a victory Jacob hopes more kids with autism can share with him.

“I would not be the person I am without my autism, and I happen to like who I am," said Jacob. "I found people like me, and you’ll find people like you, too. This autism makes you who you are in a very unique and beautiful way.”

CMFAF Martial Arts & Fitness is hosting a free safety and self-defense class for people on the spectrum on Saturday, July 17th. Enroll in the class here.

For resources for people with autism, head over to

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Mia Villanueva

Mia is a weekday reporter for Good Morning Colorado. Learn more about Mia here.


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