August 24, 2016 - Photos from the ACEing Autism tennis clinic during Queens Day at the 2016 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY. (USTA/Steven Freeman)

Children from across the New York area got to practice like the pros as part of a partnership between the USTA Foundation and nonprofit community-based organization ACEing Autism.

More than 40 children and volunteers came together on the grounds of the US Open on Wednesday for the third annual ACEing Autism clinic, which aims to bring youngsters and tennis together. The youngsters, ranging in age from 4 to 18, split into groups to warm up, learn drills and get moving on the court while developing cognitive and social skills in a fun environment.

“It’s a huge partnership for us,” ACEing Autism founder Richard Spurling said of working with the charitable arm of the USTA. “To have a partnership with the USTA whose mission is to grow the game of tennis fits really well because we are trying to get as many kids with autism on the tennis court. Everyone says this is their favorite day of the year. All of our program directors absolutely love tennis and love helping kids, but to be at the US Open and next to the superstars is exciting for everyone.”

The organization was started eight years ago in Boston by Spurling and his wife, Dr. Shafali Jeste. From humble beginnings as a family-run organization serving 15 children, the program has grown to 31 active programs from coast to coast.

In 2013, the organization added eight programs. Then in 2014, another 10 were added. Today, these 31 groups in major cities from Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta to Pittsburgh, Boston and New York host three or four sessions a week for two months. In total, the nonprofit serves more than 500 children.

“It’s tremendous. This is the reason we started it,” Spurling said. “We realized there was a huge need for play-based programs that cater to these kids. During each 50-minute clinic, our focus is on making sure they are having fun, making sure we’re connecting with them socially and making sure the kids are connecting with each other. The social piece is as important as the physical gains they’re making by being on the court.”

Colleen Plunkett first brought her 13-year-old son K.E. to the clinic last year after the family was introduced to tennis at autism clinics in the Bronx and in Queens. She said playing tennis has changed K.E.’s life.

“My four nephews are all into football and lacrosse. He sees them play but never wanted anything to do with sport,” Plunkett said. “He wanted to try tennis, and when he came home the first time, he wanted me to buy him a tennis racquet. We went right out and brought it for him. This is the first sport he’s ever liked or ever wanted to get involved in. It’s really a great program and he really looks forward to it. He wants to try the different skills and the leaders really get the kids involved. I really love the program.”

Faryd Lopez introduced his 11-year-old son Nathan to the sport to the first time on Wednesday.

“He’s never played tennis before,” Lopez said. “He likes sports like hockey and he loves to watch sport; tennis, the Olympics, football. When he grows up he wants to be a baseball coach. I think tennis will help him because it’s about doing exercise and getting healthy. Tennis can really benefit him.”

By Ashley Marshall, Photo by:  (USTA/Steven Freeman).

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