With tailor-made programs, ACEing Autism has used tennis to create a strong community and impact thousands of families. (Alex Huggan)
As a child neurologist specializing in autism and neurodevelopmental disorders, Dr. Shafali Spurling Jeste found that the programs available for autistic children were limited. Too often they catered only to the high-functioning side of the spectrum and left the children who are minimally verbal and have behavioral issues out of the picture.
In 2008, as her husband Richard Spurling, a former tennis pro, was getting his MBA from Babson College, she proposed a simple question to him: “Are there any tennis programs for autistic children?” Just like that, ACEing Autism was born.
“Tennis is inherently a social interaction; it’s a back and forth between two people,” Jeste says, explaining why the sport is such a good tool for autistic children. “You have to be able to read what that other person is thinking and is going to do to be able to beat them.”
The program started in the pilot stage with only three children. Spurling, who had never been around kids with autism before, quickly realized the challenges. “It was an eye-opener for him,” Jeste says. “All three of them were fairly delayed. They came on the clay courts and within 10 minutes, one of the children had started digging a hole into the clay, another was biting into the foam ball he was using and another was just running in circles.”
Far from deterred, Spurling quickly adapted. The next week he moved the class to a more confined space on a blacktop area next to the clay courts and replaced the foam balls. “He catered to them,” Jeste says.
Since then, the program has expanded quickly. Today more than 500 kids participate each week at 35 locations across the country. The Facebook group connects more than 50,000 people across the globe, and this August ACEing Autism received the USTA’s Community Service Award.
“I love the community it creates,” says Geneva DeGregorio, a director of ACEing Autism who first joined the group as a volunteer. “It’s not just that we’re helping the kids on the court. It’s creating a network for the families and raising awareness in the community.”
Mira Spiegel is a tennis enthusiast who was excited to get her daughter, Zoe, to participate in the pilot program. In the first class, Zoe, who was 4 years old at the time, was putting clay in her mouth. “Six years later, if you come to one of the sessions that Zoe attends, it looks like a more traditional tennis clinic,” Spiegel says. “They’re going through drills, hitting forehands and backhands, coming up for volleys. So far away from where we started.”
While the program has organized lesson plans and manuals, what makes ACEing Autism so successful is the flexibility that’s encouraged. “If you’ve seen one kid with autism, you’ve seen one kid with autism,” says DeGregorio. “We tailor every drill to the kid who is holding the tennis racket.”
“For me, what’s really phenomenal is the gains they make in their behavior, in their ability to hold attention, to regulate their behaviors, to not get agitated and hyperactive,” Jeste says. “They look like they’re having fun out there. They’re safe, they’re happy.”
Spiegel has seen the program bring her entire family joy, including her 8-year-old son, who is typically developing. “Now, as a family, on the weekends we can go to the tennis court,” she says. “It’s created a family activity that is accessible to all of us. That’s huge.”
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