TAMPA — When it's time to suit up and join his tae kwon do class, Hunter Oliver is right there with the rest of his classmates. • Whether doing pushups, throwing punches, or jumping between two punching bags while throwing kicks, the athletic 8-year-old doesn't let a thing stop him. • But it wasn't always that way. • At this time last year, Hunter weighed a mere 26 pounds, according to his mother, Tonya Oliver. In his own world, suffering from autism and epilepsy, he was refusing to eat. A doctor told Hunter's parents that if he didn't gain weight, he would need a feeding tube by September. • Chris Man-Son-Hing, a fifth-degree black belt in tae kwon do and co-owner of Man-Son-Hing Martial Arts, 3307 W Waters Ave., wanted to help. A retired police officer, Man-Son-Hing had become acquainted with Hunter's father, Scott Oliver, a special agent with the U.S. Department of Justice. • "I'd never met him," Man-Son-Hing said of Hunter. "But I know martial arts and I know how martial arts works.
"All the experts said they were at the end of their rope (for Hunter)," Man-Son-Hing said. "I just wanted to give it a shot."
Scott Oliver was willing to give it a try, though he was wary. The elder Oliver had martial arts training as part of his work in law enforcement and worried that it could be too rigorous for his son.
Still, he allowed Hunter to start taking the classes in May 2008. Soon, Hunter showed his father that, not only could he do it, he could enjoy it as well.
"He goes three times a week, but he'd go every night if he could," Scott Oliver said.
Tonya Oliver, an attorney in Pinellas County, agreed. As far as Hunter is concerned, she said, there are two kinds of days — tae kwon do days and non-tae kwon do days.
The first thing Hunter learned was the importance of good nutrition, Man-Son-Hing said. As Hunter grew winded playing tag with other children, Man-Son-Hing would tell him the importance of eating regularly to keep up his strength.
"He learned that 'if I eat my lunch, they can't catch me,'" Man-Son-Hing said.
The strategy worked. By September, Hunter was weighing in at his current 41 pounds, said Janise Man-Son-Hing, Chris' wife and co-owner of the martial arts business. "He'd grown a whole uniform size," she said.
Though still shy with strangers, Hunter seems comfortable at Man-Son-Hing's school, his mother said. Both the Olivers and the Man-Son-Hings say they've noticed a change in Hunter.
"He's much more self-confident," Man-Son-Hing said. "If there is something he cannot do, he'll still try it anyway."
That self-confidence carries over into his home life as well, Tonya Oliver said.
"Just last year, I was still putting a fork in his mouth," Tonya Oliver said. "Now, he won't let me do it. He feeds himself."
Cathy Zenko, coordinator of education and training for the University of Florida Center for Autism and Related Disabilities said Hunter's case shows the benefits of exercise for autistic children.
In addition to improved motor skills, Zenko said training in sports can be a confidence booster for anyone, but especially kids with autism.
"It sounds like (tae kwon do) is something he really likes," Zenko said. "Finding something that interests the child will lead them to success. Anyone would feel better once they find something they like and enjoy.
"And we know that tae kwon do is very disciplined," Zenko continued. "Children with autism love structure and routine."
For Man-Son-Hing, his experience teaching Hunter only confirms what he has always believed about martial arts.
"It just proves what I've always said," Man-Son Hing said. "Martial arts is not just another sport — it's a way of life."