By Kirsten Davies and Richard Spurling, special to USTA.com
When tennis professional Richard Spurling and pediatric neurologist Dr. Shafali Jeste first fell in love, they did not expect their professional interests to merge.
Today, their nonprofit ACEing Autism tennis clinics, designed to help autistic children develop fitness and social skills, are expanding rapidly across the United States -- and recent funding from USTA Serves has paved the way to open several new clinics nationwide.
Early in her career, Jeste found herself drawn to the plight of autistic children who suffer a neurodevelopment disorder that impairs their language skills and social communication. Autistic children typically have limited interests and a poor attention span, which further restricts their ability to interact socially with others.
Working with autistic children and their families, Jeste discovered that parents struggled to find suitable social outlets for their children. "Parents were driving many miles from home to find suitable play-based programs for their children," Jeste said. "Clearly there was a need, and when I talked the issue through with Richard, we figured tennis coaching might offer a solution."
Spurling was experienced in coaching young players and enthusiastically took up the challenge to teach autistic children how to play tennis. The first ACEing Autism clinic was opened in Boston in September 2008, with more than 100 children enrolled with autism spectrum disorders. The clinics today offer a flexible and closely supervised 50-minute fitness program, designed to teach children more than just tennis.
"The kids have an opportunity to develop their basic social skills, simply by participating, interacting and taking turns," said Spurling.
The need for play-based programs for children in the autistic spectrum has never been more important. The Centers for Disease Control recently announced that 1 in 88 children are now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and about 60 percent of children test without intellectual impairment. When ACEing Autism was first established, only five years ago, the rate was 1 in 150 children.
Recent research indicates the figure might be closer to 1 in 50 children.
"Playing team sports is essential for the overall education of children with ASD," says Jeste. "And when the children are part of a sporting group with their peers, they have the opportunity to build a natural sense of inclusion and belonging within education and community settings."
Autistic children generally struggle with motor skills, so playing tennis helps develop their coordination and general fitness. Each child is paired with one or two volunteer trainers and follows a program tailored according to the individual child’s ability. The program includes aerobic exercise, running, jumping and lunges, as well as volleying and groundstrokes.
To guard against possible injuries, the children use smaller racquets and low-pressure tennis balls while playing on the 10 and Under Tennis courts. They can take a break when they like, and parents are encouraged to watch the sessions through a viewing window.
This exercise program helps improve the children’s hand-eye coordination, their motor skills and their ability to focus. The experience of following a familiar routine as part of a group helps boost the child’s self-confidence and social interaction.
"It is constantly rewarding to see how the kids are having fun while learning how to participate," says Spurling.
The rewards extend beyond the individual children and into their families: Their parents benefit by enjoying a brief time out from their round the clock duties caring for a non-communicative child.
"It can also be very lonely for parents, having children outside the mainstream," Spurling said. "Through the tennis clinics, they finally have a chance to sit back and chat to like-minded families, while they’re watching their kids having a good time."
In 2010, ACEing Autism expanded to California when Jeste was recruited to the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment. Now the program has expanded to include clinics in Pasadena, Santa Barbara and Burbank in California as well as three clinics in New York, with further expansion planned for this fall.
"We are extremely grateful to USTA Serves for providing us with a generous grant of $11,000," says Spurling. "With these funds, we will be launching new clinics in Charlotte, Tampa, San Diego and Pebble Beach [Calif.] before the end of the year."
ACEing Autism also relies on a strong team of enthusiastic and empathetic volunteers to help the kids on the court.
"Our volunteers don’t need to be expert tennis players, but they do need energy and patience," says Spurling. "There is so much to learn from working with the kids, and it is a fantastic experience for anyone working in the special needs field. Not to mention, you stay fit and you’re having fun!"