When people think about mixed martial arts fighters, the words that come to mind include tough, empowered and intimidating; when people think about someone on the autistic spectrum, those may not be the adjectives that first spring to mind.
All that might change when they hear about Serena DeJesus. The 23-year-old Philly fighter is a fast-rising amateur bantamweight and an active part of the MMA community. She also has Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder often marked by physical clumsiness and problems with motor dexterity. But as she explains: “No one expects someone with autism to fight, let alone train, in MMA. I look harmless, but in reality, I’ll snap someone like a twig.”
On her Twitter account, DeJesus gives daily updates on her extreme training, her “zoo” of pets, and meeting fans; on Facebook and Instagram, she posts messages to get people up off the couch and out to the gym. The most inspiring message of all, however, might just be her own.
The site GirlsFightMMA has an excellent interview with “Serena Southpaw” that informs and inspires, with DeJesus explaining how her MMA training makes her feel like she has a place to belong.
“[MMA] allows me to pour out all my frustrations and other emotions from me being over-stimulated that have piled up in the course of the day,” says DeJesus. “Whenever I haven’t trained for a few days, I get a lot more aggressive and edgy with people. No, I don’t hit them, but I don’t feel good, nor do I feel like myself. The training makes me feel like I belong, and that I am normal enough to be with a team.”
She also details her struggles with being bullied as child: “I was picked on because I didn’t verbally communicate well, but after I threw a kid off face first from the jungle gym for purposely throwing juice on me, I reached my breaking point, and no one really messed with me after that … The bullying didn’t stop till I started chucking mofos.”
DeJesus says that her family is “very supportive” of her MMA career and she encourages families with autistic children to supportive their children’s interests.
“Take note of what your child is skilled in, and encourage it to grow into other avenues, so in case one doesn’t work out they won’t be discouraged and can work down another path. Encourage them, because even though we try our best, we can be depressed just like anyone else, and the fact that we know that we’re not Neuro-Typical doesn’t help.”
Head over to GirlsFightMMA for the rest of Serena’s amazing story.