Jiu Jitsu Practitioner Battles Asperger’s Syndrome Daily on the Mats

Photo courtesy of Robert Martin

If you’re a jiu jitsu practitioner, you know how the art and sport can overtake your life.  You find yourself thinking about it constantly.  With any obsession, life can find a way to put obstacles in your way.  What if you had trouble socializing and even worse, what if you didn’t like touching other people?  Robert Martin has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a high-functioning version of autism which makes it extremely difficult to interact with other people and even to physically come into contact with them.  This is his story, in his own words, and shows the true power of jiu jitsu to bring us face to face with our weaknesses and teach one how to make them a strength.

Jiu Jitsu Times:  Thanks for taking some time to talk to us Robert.  Could you tell our readers a little bit about your background?

Robert Martin:  “This is probably the hardest question. I’ve never really been too good at talking about myself, but I’m currently a 28 year old guy living in Norfolk, Virginia. I currently train at Tidewater Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy under Dan Gleaton and Jon Wertz, who recently awarded me my purple belt. The caveat is that I’m currently training with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism that impacts someone’s ability to socialize and communicate. More often than not some of the symptoms associated with it is social isolation, sensitivity to sounds, touch, and various other forms of external stimuli. I could write a book on what I’ve gone through with it from getting into full on, rage-filled verbal sparring matches with my dad because I felt uncomfortable with touch to the point where I wouldn’t hug or touch the family to having a girl eventually break up with me because she couldn’t deal with the baggage that comes with autism. I’ve got some pretty extreme examples of how it has affected me including a high-school principal who told me I should drop out due to my inability to interact socially and function in a public place. As it currently stands, I’m well adjusted, graduated from college, and have a full-time job, and I attribute a lot of that to jiu-jitsu.”

Jiu Jitsu Times:  How did you get your start in Jiu-Jitsu?

Robert Martin:  “I got my start in Jiu-Jitsu about 10 years ago. When I signed up at the place that offered it I didn’t even know what jiu-jitsu or MMA was. It was this little hole in the wall place. All I knew was that I got picked on a lot in high school, wanted to defend myself, and they had Muay Thai Kickboxing. After growing up watching Best of the Best, Bloodsport, and Kickboxer how could I say no? The owner took me under his wing for the year that I was there and introduced me to Erik Paulson’s CSW, but I didn’t really like the feeling of touching someone, so the brown belt who taught the class gave me a gi. For a year I trained jiu-jitsu and skipped out before rolling since I didn’t like touching people. At the end of that year I tore my MCL and after my recovery I started Judo at a local rec center because I found out I could skip the ne-waza portion. About 3 years into Judo I started cross-training Judo at another club which offered Jiu-Jitsu and continued there for 6 months until I decided I really didn’t like touching people and once again quit Jiu-Jitsu. Eventually, I met my current coach at the gym I used to work at. I trained with him once and was hooked. With his encouragement and teaching I became addicted to BJJ, eventually quit Judo, and somehow got my purple belt.”

Robert working his Judo. Photo courtesy of Robert Martin
Robert working his Judo. Photo courtesy of Robert Martin

Jiu Jitsu Times:  What is your favorite part about jiu-jitsu?

Robert Martin:  “My favorite thing about jiu-jitsu isn’t conventional whatsoever. I still don’t like touching people, it still freaks me out, and I still don’t like sweating or feeling the pressure that only jiu-jitsu can make you feel, but I love it. I love the movement, the leverage, and the small technical details that can make a technique feel effortless, but what I really love are the people I’ve met through training. Having Asperger’s is lonely because there is this constant disconnect between you and other people. the best way to describe it is that it feels like being in a bubble. I can look around and see so many people with social lives, friends, ambitions, and interpersonal connections, but that bubble stops me from being able to develop and feel those connections. Unfortunately that’s just the way it is, unless I’m on the mat. Because of jiu-jitsu I have friends, real people that I can count on. I managed to get a job that had me traveling extensively a few years ago and to this day it still blows my mind that so many academies welcomed me with open arms made me part of their team while I was there.”

Jiu Jitsu Times:  What’s your biggest hurdle related to Jiu-Jitsu?

Robert Martin:  “I’ve mentioned it a couple of times, but the biggest hurdle is still touching people and rolling with new people. These two things are essential to BJJ simply because of the nature of the sport. We’re always going to be in close quarters with someone and there is always going to be a high turnover rate. I spend most of my time on the mat battling those two issues, which fuels a horrible cycle of self-doubt and definitely limits progress. At the end of the day, though, every time I have been on bottom side control I’ve told myself I was going to quit, but I haven’t yet, and I won’t.”

Excuses are only as powerful as we let them be. Photo courtesy of Robert Martin
Excuses are only as powerful as we let them be. Photo courtesy of Robert Martin

Jiu Jitsu Times:  What are your goals with both BJJ and outside?

Robert Martin:  “I have one overarching goal for both BJJ and the outside world, and that is to find balance. Asperger’s comes with a unique trait called hyper-focusing, which is essentially an interest so intense that it takes precedence over anything you may have going on in life. I’ve currently got an amazing girlfriend who supports me in everything I do, a job that allows for growth opportunities, and a great Jiu-Jitsu academy I’m part of. When I first started training I was in college, so I was in the academy morning, noon, and night, or at my instructor’s house rolling on his mats. My current goal now simply involves being able to train and progress a little bit each day while still being able to perform well at work and not miss out on moments I could be spending with my family or my girlfriend. I just want to be less selfish and get hurt less. I get hurt a lot.”

Jiu Jitsu Times:  What advice would you have for someone facing similar challenges?

Robert Martin:  Find something that makes you feel normal. It might not be Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and that’s okay, but find something that you can call your own and don’t give up too soon if you don’t think it’s working out. I tried rolling on and off for 7 years before I realized the thing I disliked most is something I want to carry with me for the rest of my life.

Robert with his team. Photo courtesy of Robert Martin
Robert with his team. Photo courtesy of Robert Martin

Jiu Jitsu Times:  Any shoutouts you’d like to add, Robert?

Of course! My coaches Jon Wertz and Dan Gleaton. Without them I wouldn’t have something I’m so passionate about. You wouldn’t believe the encouragement these guys give me. Jon just received his third stripe on his black belt and last year Dan Gleaton got gold at No-Gi Pans. Also, Tom DeBlass and David Porter. Tom is as genuine a guy. You ask him a question and he’ll give you a life-changing response. David Porter is a Pedro Sauer Brown Belt who I view as a mentor. He rolls on a cerebral level and his knowledge runs so deep. The best part is that he’s willing to share it!

Jiu Jitsu Times:  Thank you Robert for your inspiring story!  Keep training and let’s catch up to you when you get your Brown and Black belts!



  1. I am curious if Rob has trained no-gi with compression rash guards and grappling spats. I would think the pressure from wearing that type of gear might be of some benefit or possibly reduce some of the sensitivity to touch.


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