A group of Tulane University students have brought a new tennis program to the growing number of families with children with autism spectrum disorder in New Orleans. Judging by Aceing Autism’s enthusiastic attendance, the program has a permanent future in the city.
Aceing Autism, the national nonprofit, kicked off in New Orleans in late March under the direction of Morgan Brady, a sophomore at Tulane studying neuroscience and psychology, and 18 other volunteers. The program aims to enrich the lives of children with autism by teaching them cognitive, social and physical lessons through tennis that are applicable to everyday tasks.
“This program gives the kids a chance to just be themselves, they’re just doing their own things and aren’t worried about anyone treating them weird,” Brady said. “It lets them get that interaction with us instructors in addition to their peers.”
According to Aceing Autism, one in 88 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders and there are about one million children in the United States with the disorder. Nationwide, the program reaches more than 500 children every week, with 30 programs in 10 different states, New Orleans being the most recent opening location.
During the camp, children are broken into two age groups, ages 4 – 10 and 11 – 20, in order to both make the tennis lessons catered to their specific needs and to increase the instructor to child ratio. Brady said that a lot of the instruction during the camp is to help the children build up their confidence to believe that they are both mentally and physically capable of playing tennis. Most of the lessons focus on developing skills like hand-eye coordination, rolling, throwing and tossing ball, waiting in line, taking turns, listening and following directions.
Ghage Fuoco, 15, of Kenner, said that the encouragement and the respect that the instructors constantly back him and other camp attendees with has helped him develop his talent for the sport.
“I love that I have really gotten good at tennis, and I am continuing to get better and better,” Fuoco said. “It helps me focus better, which is one of my main struggles when socializing. It also improves my hand-eye coordination, which even ultimately helps with things like my hand writing.”
Kristen Higbee of New Orleans said that Aceing Autsim helps her son Turner, 5, with his fine and gross motor skills and, most importantly, that he has to follow through with things and adapt to new circumstances as they arise.
“If you put a child that is on the spectrum in a ‘normal’ summer camp, they usually just can’t keep up and get frustrated,” Higbee said. “But in this program he is allowed to be himself and go at his own pace, while also learning to make things happen for himself. Just because my son has a disability doesn’t make him disabled, he just leans differently. And, sometimes, he’s just a little stubborn.”
Because so many Tulane students volunteer for Aceing Autism, there is often one-on-one instruction for the children, which mother Rebecca Gates says is her son Brady’s favorite part.
“He learns better when he has focused attention from one person, so when it comes to following directions and instructions, like waiting for his turn, the personalized instruction really helps him,” Gates said.
In addition to providing the attendees with motor skills, the children are given the opportunity to socialize. Aceing Autism says that one of its focuses is to “encourage children of a similar age to act as peer role models to the children” that are on the autistic spectrum.
“The kids are always very proud after they make progress on the court, and it’s neat to see them want to show that off to their parents. Often you’ll hear them announce, ‘Look mom, I did it!’ after hitting a shot and they are so happy, knowing that there is this extra thing that they can do well,” Brady said.
Along with giving the children an opportunity to socialize, the weekly camp gives parents a chance to come together to exchange experience and support. The program makes an effort to engage with the parents to help map the child’s motor functions and social development.
“I have two children with autism, and I have found that it is pretty difficult to locate programs for both of them to do, especially for my older son,” said Michelle Roberie, mother of Fuoco. “This program is so great because it lets them be outside and socialize, and I can watch them enjoy themselves while talking to moms just like me who have shared similar experiences as I have with my children.”
Though the camp is coming to the end of its inaugural five-week long run, Brady said that her group has intentions of making Aceing Autism a permanent spring camp at Tulane University in years to come.
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