Aceing Autism

by Richard Spurling, USPTA

<i>Tennis helps autistic children learn socialization skills.
Tennis helps autistic children learn socialization skills.

July 2011 — There is a growing body of literature about the benefits of exercise programs for children with autism spectrum disorders. These youngsters struggle with social-interaction problems, as well as language impairments, repetitive behaviors and restricted interests.

We have data about the benefits of tennis for children with other neurodevelopmental disorders. But surprisingly, there are no studies specifically investigating the role of tennis in relation to autism spectrum disorders.In spite of that scientific void, it is possible to “ace autism” – to use tennis to help children with autism spectrum disorders, which are considered a spectrum because of the wide-ranging levels of function that are seen.My wife, Shafali Jeste, is a child neurologist who focuses on autism. She and I launched ACEing Autism, a nonprofit organization, in the summer of 2008.We now have two sites – one in Boston and the other in Los Angeles, where we partner with the Adaptive Training Program at UCLA. Our clinics are designed for children with autism, ages 4 to 17, at all cognitive and developmental levels. Parents can register their children for the 10- and 11-week sessions.We receive a lot of help from an advisory board, which includes parents of children with ASD, professionals who work with these children, and – not least – tennis pros.Together we have developed a program that helps raise the confidence level of children with ASD while teaching them the game. This provides an affordable, enjoyable and effective recreational activity for those who often lack extracurricular outlets.A primary goal of ACEing Autism is to improve motor function since up to 90 percent of children with ASD demonstrate motor impairments. These include deficits in gross and fine motor skills, coordination, gait, and planning of complex motor behaviors (see Jeste, 2011).Motor function is critical for language development, social learning and overall cognitive ability. Unfortunately, because motor problems are not part of the diagnostic criteria of ASD, most services and treatments do not target them. By targeting motor deficits, we work to improve language and social skills, along with learning, in children with these disorders.ACEing Autism incorporates the USTA QuickStart format, with low-pressure balls and smaller courts, while being structured specifically for children with ASD. The 45-minute session includes (1) a warmup, (2) tennis readiness skills, (3) tennis drills, and (4) closing games.Most of the ideas, drills and games that we have adopted come from USPTA seminars and USPTA websites.The program also incorporates a child’s interests into the training. For instance, if the child wants to talk about dinosaurs the whole time, the volunteer will say, “That’s great that you know so much about dinosaurs. For every five forehands you hit, you can tell me one fact about dinosaurs.” The program also uses visual cues, such as putting cones or markers on the ground to help the child stay in the appropriate position while hitting a ball.The next step in the development of ACEing Autism will be formal assessments of each child’s pre- and post-program function and to put measures in place so that the program can be used in sites around the country.So far, the program has been very successful and the parents and children have found the experience extremely rewarding. One parent, whose son loved the games at the end of the session, had this to say: “Each child leaves the session feeling they accomplished something . It’s wonderful to find a program that understands our special kids, and works to make each feel proud.”ACEing Autism is looking to partner with clubs and sports facilities to expand its reach to more families affected with autism. Tennis clubs or tennis professionals interested in starting a program may contact the organization by emailing or visiting for more information.