Ryan Rogers has known for a while that he's good at karate. A 24-year-old black belt, he won the silver medal in sparring in his age division at the 2012 U.S. Karate Nationals and the bronze in kata at both the 2012 and 2013 national competition. He's also the first Chattanooga-born person to become a U.S. National Karate judge.
What Rogers didn't know, and what he just found out in late fall 2013, is that he has a high-functioning form of autism spectrum disorder, better known as Asperger's.
And according to his Sensei Corey Green, that diagnosis heightened the importance of Rogers' previous accomplishments.
"We realized he just did something that hasn't been done before," said Green, explaining that the diagnosis made Rogers a four-time history maker.
Rogers is now the first documented person in history with autism to win those medals in the 18- to 34-year old division, continued Green, and he's also the first person with autism to become a U.S. National Karate judge.
Green's specialty is training karate students with special needs, and Rogers has been one of his assistants for the past couple of years. Even before learning of his own diagnosis of Asperger's, Rogers had an interest in teaching karate to students with special needs.
"I'm just now discovering kids [with special needs] learn differently than a lot of people claim that they do," said Rogers. "There's a way to teach. They just communicate differently than regular, normal students."
He says his recent diagnosis of Asperger's has answered a lot of questions that he had while growing up. Asperger's is often characterized by delays in the development of communication and socialization skills.
For years Rogers and his mom thought he might have hearing or speech problems, and they even suspected he had difficulty with anxiety. Now, he says, his responses and interactions with other people make sense to him.
"It's like [he has] a heightened sense of awareness," said Green. "He's more aware of how to help people."
As he teaches now, he finds himself picking up on the needs of each student. For example, when some of his students with special needs start to lose focus and "stare out into space," Rogers remembers doing that himself as a child, and he quickly brings their focus back to the task at hand.
"Half of our teachers have a special need and the other half do not. We have people with special needs teaching typical people," Green said. "It shows [the students] that in life they have to be able to relate to anybody and to be accepting of anybody no matter what differences they have."
Though Rogers said learning of his diagnosis changed some things, other goals and dreams remain unchanged. He still plans to continue teaching, he said, with hopes of opening his own studio someday.
"I think these next few years are going to be great," said Rogers, smiling.