Teaching autistic children provides challenges and rewards for tennis pro

by Harvey Rubin, USPTAI haven’t been a tennis teacher very long. I’ve spent most of my life in the motion picture business doing camera work. Six years ago I became certified by the USPTA and met Don Henson, USPTA Master Professional, who, through his monthly seminars, inspired me to do more than teach – to change lives – while I was on the court with my students.About a year ago, at one of Don’s seminars, I received an ­opportunity to achieve that goal.I met a fellow teacher from England, Richard Spurling. Richard and his wife, Shafali, a neuropsychiatric autism researcher at UCLA, had started a program in Boston called Aceing Autism. They expanded it in Los Angeles under the UCLA Adaptive Training Program. When Richard outlined the program at the seminar, I knew I wanted to be involved in it.Since then, on a weekly basis, I’ve been teaching children with autism ranging in age from 4 to 16. Before that, I had no experience with autistic children outside of shooting a public service announcement for autism in 1979. Teaching tennis was a new challenge for me and teaching autistic children seemed like an even greater, if not frightening, one.One thing I learned about camera work in the movie industry is that knowledge replaces fear. That concept helped me in my new arena when I learned there are varying degrees of autism. Some children seem completely unaffected while others have severe symptoms.The methods I used to teach my mainstream students needed serious modification so I could reach out to these special-needs youngsters.I first had to re-evaluate how we measure success or progress in tennis since the process is slowed considerably and the potential for frustration on the part of the instructor is great. The biggest test, at least for me, was to change my expectations to meet the realities of the situation. The little steps we normally aim for are transformed into micro steps when you’re dealing with autism.Usually, we strive to teach technique, bio-efficiency and winning tennis to our everyday students, but the “lesson plan” is different with special-needs children. The ability to focus is the key to getting our “regular” students to advance and perfect their games, but an inability to focus is the most prevalent symptom of autism, and dealing with that on court is a major challenge for an instructor. Some autistic children can also exhibit behavior that may potentially be dangerous to others and even to the instructor. The use of soft balls can minimize this problem, but we must be aware of the racquets, which are sometimes brandished wildly, creating a safety hazard.I was trained never to teach tennis wearing sunglasses as eye contact is an important element in communication. This is true tenfold for teaching autistic children and is significant in getting their attention, which is an elusive commodity. It’s also necessary to get physically closer to the students, and an offshoot of that is a closer emotional relationship between student and teacher.

Socialization is a major issue for autistic children as they have difficulty meshing with their peers. One of the greatest advantages of tennis is that it allows the children to exercise and interact with other children in a positive environment where fun, rather than skill development, is the emphasis. It’s possible to see definite progress in skill development with these kids, but it is more important for instructors to provide positive reinforcement and create a nonthreatening atmosphere.The experience has been full of surprises for me, mostly positive ones. There was one young man who was so talented I wanted to enter him in the Special Olympics, but for unrelated reasons, he dropped out of the program.Some of the autistic youngsters show up with their non-autistic siblings and it is special to see how the siblings support their special-needs brothers and sisters. Love seems to be an important ingredient in the care of these kids, and to see it coming from their parents and other family members is inspiring.What we can give these children is a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of fitting in when they usually do not. The spontaneous hugs and expressions of joy on their faces are the most precious gifts they give us as teachers who are helping them to deal with their disability.

Harvey Rubin has been playing tennis for more than 35 years, and has now officially retired as a cameraman in the motion picture business. He formerly was a staff instructor at Cheviot Hills Sports Center in Los Angeles, and currently is a freelance teacher in the Los Angeles area. Rubin is also a tournament photographer for the USPTA and has covered the Australian Open, the U.S. Open and regional tournaments throughout the United States.

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