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I used to be an easy target for bullies. They wouldn't dare now.

Who: Julia Futo

City: Ft Lauderdale

Quote: “I used to be an easy target for bullies. They wouldn't dare now.”

PH Courtesy: Anita Mitchell
Julia Futo. PH Courtesy: Anita Mitchell

“I used to be an easy target for bullies.

My balance was off. It took a long time for me to learn new things, I was overwhelmed with too much information. I always felt like I was falling. My depth perception was off. I couldn’t coordinate my hands and eyes. I was easily startled and to top it off, I looked different from other people and having to socialize was excruciating. One of my teachers even told my mother that I was retarded.

You see, these things were all part of the two disabilities that I was born with; encephalopathy and developmental coordination disorder.

I went through different kinds of physical therapies to learn how to perform reflexes and maneuver everyday tasks. It was a good start but I needed a lot more.

What helped me most was this: When I was in 4th grade, my mother thought I might enjoy learning Aikido at Holiday Park. There was a 5-day camp scheduled during my upcoming school break. Eleven years later, Aikido has become a key part of my life. I have mastered coordination, improved my muscle memory, become physically fit and gained that special kind of confidence that comes from tossing someone twice my size to the ground.

Present day Aikido is the creation of the deeply spiritual O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba although its origins date back to feudal Japan. Aikido philosophy says that ultimate victory comes not from fighting but rather from manipulating and harmonizing with an attacker’s movement. When you do battle in this way, destructive violence is avoided.

I attended summer camps at my local dojo, Florida Aikiai, every year since 4th grade. By the time I was 15 years old, I was a junior counselor and the videographer and part of my responsibility included uploading pictures and videos to social media so that parents could see what their kids were doing. I started to help teach Aikido and prepare students for their belt promotion tests. Because of Covid-19, there was not summer camp last year but registration has started for this year and I am so excited to return.

What a visitor to the dojo sees at first is people throwing each other and using weapons while in a deep moving meditation. What they don’t see is the harmonizing of our energies, how we blend with the motion of an attack, redirect our assailants’ movement and take them off balance. When I perform this correctly, I can send opponents flying through the air or immobilize them on the ground. These are intricate movements with lots of tiny details we must totally relax into.

My Aikido practice eventually replaced physical and occupational therapies because I was constantly using the gross and fine motor skills I was learning in class. Because Aikido involves a lot of repetition, it has made me physically stronger. Strength training, warmups, yoga and meditation provide me with the solace I need to get me through life’s rough patches. I tire easily and I have always had a place at the dojo where I could rest if I needed to, just another example of how Aikido has made me feel accepted.

I appreciate how this strict discipline is taught in a gentle, kind way. My Aikido practice gives me a sense of accomplishment and through it, I have developed a mindset for how to stay calm under pressure. I have also gained a lot of confidence from knowing how to defend myself against an attacker. When I need to deal with life’s disappointments, I turn to the Aikido mindset of staying positive and always finding the light, even in the darkness.

From the beginning, people were very kind and accepting of me and I now go out of my way to be welcoming and make new people feel comfortable when they join my dojo.

By partnering with others during class, I have developed my social skills. Neurodiverse people like me don’t have an easy time fitting into mainstream neurotypical life but this has been my path to self-acceptance.

Yes, I have worked hard and come a long way but I am still not fully integrated. I am still easily startled and will jump if someone brushes up against me. I am still on edge, I still deal with depth perception problems. People in my dojo dont know I am neurodiverse and people in my neurodiverse community don’t know I do Aikido.

I have learned that my personal demons are not a bad thing, they are normal and everyone has them. I have spent time getting to know and accept them, absorb the wisdom I learn from them and have them help me be a better person.

I am no longer painfully shy. I celebrate my small successes. I practice gratitude every day.”


“I am Anita Mitchell and I collect people stories, much the same way people collect shoes or baseball cards or Lladro porcelain figurines. During my 26 years at WSVN7, I had the front-row seat to people stories and it was there I learned about the extraordinariness of the ordinary.

Since retiring from television news, I serve on the Board of Directors of Different Brains, a charitable foundation that supports neurodiverse adults. I also serve on the Board of Directors of the Broward County Sports Hall of Fame. We honor local residents who have set unique standards of excellence through sports.

Since 2004, I have swum competitively with our local Swim Fort Lauderdale Masters Swim Team (SFTL).

I don’t really know how the writing and the swimming and the neurodiverse and honoring local sports figures are connected but I know in my heart that they are.

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