The sounds of squeaking shoes, whacking of tennis balls, excited chatter, and words of encouragement fill the large room. To the casual observer it may just look like a dozen children partaking in a tennis lesson, put on by a group of students mainly in their teens and twenties. The coaches are motivated volunteers from high school, college, and medical school. The tennis players are an enthusiastic, astute, jovial group of children. The only difference with this tennis clinic as opposed to a typical practice is that these children are on the autism spectrum.
How I became involved: I heard about a program called ACEing Autism after my freshman year of college. I returned to Hyde Park, NY to help my former high school tennis coach train the high school tennis players before their playoffs. I played for the varsity team for six years, and enjoyed getting back to the courts to help the players get ready for high level competition. At the end of practice on the first day back from college, my coach Bob Mayerhofer asked the players who could come to ACEing Autism that Sunday. I was not sure what this program was, but was intrigued. I was asked if I could participate, because they were always looking for more volunteers, so I signed up right away.
Particularly due to being a pre-medical student, I was looking forward to this opportunity to work with the children. However, I was not sure what to expect and was certainly nervous on the first day. Initially, I was not sure how well I would work with the kids or if I would be ready to deal with any situations that would arise. But after a few minutes of warming up with one of the kids, I immediately began to feel comfortable.
Every time I return from college for the summer and on all breaks in the fall, winter, and spring, I look forward to spending some time teaching the kids some tennis. Upon writing this, I have actually just returned from an ACEing Autism session. Unfortunately, I could only participate in this program on these breaks.
This changed in August 2014, when as an officer of the pre-health society on campus at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, I received an email from a medical student at UMass Medical School that an ACEing Autism program was starting up in Shrewsbury, MA and that they were looking for volunteers. I could hardly contain my excitement and emailed her back right away to sign up. I was also able to gather many eager volunteers from both the pre-health society and from the club tennis team on which I play.
What I have learned ACEing Autism is all about: While learning to play tennis is the headline of the program, ACEing Autism is about much more. Through the program, the kids are given the opportunity to develop both physically and socially. The children begin with various abilities and difficulties both physically and socially, and ACEing Autism cultivates skills in both categories. Physically, through the development of tennis strokes, the kids develop hand-eye coordination, balance, and strength. Socially, the kids have an opportunity to meet new people, both the volunteers, and other children on the spectrum. The program is also able to build their confidence as they learn and improve each stroke.
In my experience, the kids love the opportunity to learn this new sport and spend time with others. I have had the opportunity to work with a couple kids who have some experience with sports and are able to pick up the strokes very easily. Even in the short time they have been playing, they have become very adequate beginner players. In just a couple of years, they plan on joining the high school tennis team. Others love hitting the ball as hard as they can, oftentimes out of the court and over the fence. Even others are more timid and careful. I have also had the opportunity to work with kids who have not had many refined physical abilities at all. Working with them, though more challenging, is just as rewarding. I am able to work from the ground up: from teaching how to hold the racquet, to facing the right direction and swinging when the ball comes near. But regardless of child’s skill level, it seems all I have worked with and observed have had positive experiences with ACEing Autism.
What I have heard from parents:
One parent said that her son was not able to do even one sit-up before joining the program. Now he is able to do at least ten.
Another said that her son is much more active since joining the program and that the volunteers at ACEing Autism have been very positive role models for the kids.
Another said that when the program ends in each off-season or when we cannot get access to space, that her kids are disappointed and cannot wait until the program returns.
I do have a favorite story I have heard from a parent. Her son was shy and was very quiet in school. He was likewise shy when joining ACEing Autism, but after some time began to grow more comfortable. She later explained to my coach and director of the program in Hyde Park that he rarely shared experiences in class, but did so for the first time that week. He was so excited to share with the class the great time he had at ACEing Autism that weekend. He had gained the confidence and enthusiasm from his experience at ACEing Autism with us. I believe this speaks to the power of the program and I am so proud to have played a small part.
I am honored to have had the opportunity to be involved in two ACEing Autism programs. It has given me the opportunity to work with children on the spectrum; something will prove very valuable for my goal of being a caring physician. It has also afforded me the chance to make a positive, meaningful, however small, impact on the lives of the kids. It has been a very humbling and gratifying experience. Volunteering at these programs is one of my favorite activities and I look forward to it each and every time the opportunity arises.
By Kevin Ackerman
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 2016