Meet Connor W and Noah Short

Meet Connor W, a 14-year-old player from our Evanston, IL program. He loves Spider-Man, Star Wars, and now tennis. As Connor’s mom, Suzanne Jakstavich, said: “I love ACEing Autism because of the community we’ve created. It’s a community for my son but it’s also a community for me because of the friendships I’ve built and the ability to share stories and resources.”

“The volunteers aren’t just coaches, they’re allies and friends. This program and particularly Noah – Connors’ regular volunteer – and the PDs, have affirmed my son, and there is a difference between welcoming and affirming,” she stated. “What I mean by that is that they’re included, they’re instilled a sense of belief in them, and that’s a very important thing to talk about!” she explained.

Looking back at when Connor was first diagnosed with autism at around 4 years old, “it took about six months to get the evaluation because it wasn’t easy to find a development pediatrician and there were a lot of waitlists,” Suzanne shared. “We noticed that he was so immersed in the train world, he really wasn’t involved with people so from there we started the journey to seek the right provider. We went full force and went to occupational and speech therapy and did that for two to three years every day.”

It was essential for the advocate mother to convey how challenging it was when she received her son’s diagnosis. “You mourn the loss of the future you envisioned, but there’s no time to dwell on it. In those moments, I dug deep and focused on what I could do to help my child, support him, and educate myself. In other words, how do I change the trajectory of my child’s life, knowing that early intervention is so critical?” she shared. “My determination became a driving force to ensure the best possible future for my son.”

So when ACEing Autism came up, she was really excited to try it. “He’s always been verbal, but the biggest change we’ve seen is his willingness to engage with others and that’s where the program has been so important,” she cheerfully noted. “It’s doing it in a way that’s not judging him, meeting him where he is at, and celebrating him. His ability and willingness to engage with others is not forced, it’s something that’s happening organically.”

In addition, Suzanne, who has joined facebook groups to find resources, has found the program to be the best of both worlds. “On one hand, you have a lot of one on one and a lot of group interactions, so it helps him navigate the different social situations he’ll be faced with,” she noticed. “And it’s also a foundational program that really builds up his confidence. For example, he started building one skill, then the next, and it helps build his confidence because by the seventh month, he started putting it all together,” she said proudly. 

As we wrap up our interview, the positive and energetic mother wants to acknowledge how much Noah has meant to them and Connor. “Noah and Connor have that connection, and that’s why he has been able to flourish.” On his end, Noah, a senior who studies economics, has enjoyed getting to know Connor and his family. “I really appreciated the connection outside of tennis, and I felt welcomed by his parents too where I could reach out to them if needed,” Noah, who has volunteered with other organizations since high school, said. “For instance they’ve been to Washington DC and they gave me tips and ideas since I was going there.” 

For Noah, something special that has kept him coming back session after session, has been seeing his athlete develop every week. “This is the first time where I volunteer as a coach and I see athletic growth,” he explained, smiling ear to ear. “There are some things I’ve taken for granted and being able to develop that with someone is really cool. We’re at the point of doing rallies over the net with volleys and regular volleys, so it’s been amazing to see.”

Lastly, as much as Connor has learned from Noah, the college student has learned from Connor as well. “I’ve learned patience for sure, but he has also brought back a sense of imagination because he loves superheroes so we’ll bring it up sometimes. I learned that I can play with that and be creative, so it’s great to see that I can be witty and creative cause I’ve never really been a creative person before,” he admitted laughing. 

We want to thank Suzanne, Connor, and Noah for sharing their experiences and we can’t wait to see what this fantastic pair accomplishes next on and off the court!

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