Today is September 20, 2012. It's hard to believe that it's been four years – a whole four years since my then 4½-year-old daughter, Zoe, met Richard Spurling, founder of ACEing Autism, a nonprofit program that provides recreational tennis for autistic children.
I was so excited for that moment. It was the first time since my daughter was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) that we were doing something purely for fun, for recreation, for sport. Our lives had become all about the therapies and coping strategies, the reinforcement schedules, the ABA programs.
That initial tennis session didn't go smoothly. We were on clay courts, and Zoe picked up the dirt and put it in her mouth. She wouldn't focus. We couldn't get her attention. She looked in every direction except the one we wanted. As a parent and former collegiate tennis player who always assumed her children would also play competitive sports, I was crushed.
I waited for Richard to tell me that it wasn't working or that Zoe wasn't ready. But he didn't. Instead, the following week, he moved the program, which utilizes the USTA’s 10-and-under tennis format of short courts and soft balls, to a blacktop area. Without the distraction of the clay courts, Zoe’s focus and tennis improved.
Tennis means the world to Zoe. The minute we arrive to the facility and get out of the car, she smiles so wide and starts pulling me as hard as she can to walk to the courts faster. She can’t get enough of the sport.
Since 2008, when ACEing Autism was founded, it has expanded to six states, thirteen program locations and serves about 200 children each week.
Tennis provides so many opportunities to enrich the development of children, especially those on the autism spectrum. At the very heart, tennis is a social game, furnishing a natural opportunity to develop and reinforce skills that many children with ASD find difficult. Tennis has an innate give-and-take rhythm that encourages taking turns, eye contact, focus and attention, motor planning, fine and gross motor skills, and more. Nearly all the skills that a multitude of teachers and therapists spend the week isolating and working on with my daughter can be practiced and applied in one tennis clinic.
Last week, I attended curriculum night in the mainstream third-grade classroom at Zoe's school. Zoe spends most of her day in a special-education classroom receiving one-on-one instruction, but the aide also brings her into the mainstream third-grade classroom for a few minutes every day. As a parent, every year gets harder to walk into that classroom knowing that even with the incredible progress my child is making, the gap between her and the typical kids widens.
I found Zoe's desk and sat down.
The teacher instructed the parents to open the packet the kids had prepared and to read what our child had written for their life ambitions. Afraid that Zoe hadn't completed the assignment I hesitated to open the packet and instead listened to the other parents read aloud.
One child wanted to be a veterinarian.
Another dreamed of being a movie star.
A third child hoped to play professional basketball.
Finally, I opened Zoe's packet, which read: “When I grow up, I want to be a tennis player,” a discovery that brought me tears of joy.
Amazing how a whole four years changed the hopes and dreams of my special little girl.
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