ACEing Autism: Zoe's Story

ACEing Autism was founded in Boston in 2008 by the husband and wife team of Richard Spurling, a tennis professional with an MBA in entrepreneurship, and Dr. Shafali Spurling Jeste, a pediatric neurologist specializing in developmental disorders. They identified a need for more quality recreational programs for children with autism, particularly with tennis, and they combined their professional expertise and personal commitment to develop ACEing Autism. ACEing Autism's mission is to make the sport of tennis available to children with autism and to use tennis as a means to enhance health and fitness, hand-eye coordination and motor development and improve the social skills for children with autism.
 
As of September 2012 there are thirteen sites, and at each site the program serves an average of twenty children. The goal is to continue to expand and offer the program in more cities in order to serve the growing number of children with autism and related developmental disabilities.
 
Zoe Spiegel and her family benefitted tremendously from the work of ACEing Autism. Read her story below.
 
Zoe’s Story
 
By Mira Tamir Spiegel
 
It's hard to believe that it's been four years since I first walked my then 4-1/2-year-old daughter, Zoe, across the parking lot to meet Richard Spurling to the tennis courts. Those were the pilot days of what would become ACEing Autism. 
 
I was so excited for that moment. It was the first time in the two-plus years since my daughter had first been diagnosed with autism (ASD) that we were doing something purely for fun, for recreation, for sport. Our lives had become all about therapies and coping strategies, reinforcement schedules and ABA programs. We lived in fear of things like “circle time” and pretty much had forgotten all about making sure our child was having fun.
 
That first tennis session didn't go smoothly. We were on clay courts and Zoe picked up the clay 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 play competitive sports, I was crushed.
 
I waited for Richard to tell me that it wasn't working or that she just wasn't ready. But he didn't. Instead, when we showed up the following week, Richard set up shop on the blacktop area adjacent to the courts. Without the distraction of the clay courts, things went a little better. And so it went that with each subsequent obstacle we ran into, Richard found a way to work around it.
 
Before I knew it, it was fall and we were participating alongside 30 or so other families in the first official season of ACEing Autism. And even more importantly, the minute we would get out of the car at the tennis facility, I'd see a huge smile come over Zoe's face and she'd start pulling me as hard as she could to get us to the courts faster.
 
ACEing Autism has meant a lot to our family. While Zoe is on the court, her younger, typically developing brother is running around playing tag with other kids his age – all of whom know what it's like to have a sibling with ASD. My husband and I have connected with other families we never would have met otherwise. We've been introduced to medical professionals and have been invited to participate in research studies by virtue of our affiliation with ACEing Autism. We've had the pleasure of meeting so many impressive high school and college students who have given of their time to volunteer at the program. We have watched as some of those volunteers have changed their majors or their career plans because their experience at ACEing Autism has made them realize that they wanted to pursue careers in autism-related fields.
 
Of course, it really shouldn't come as a surprise that ACEing Autism has been so successful. The game of tennis provides so many opportunities to enrich the development of children, especially those on the autism spectrum. At the very heart, tennis a social game, furnishing a natural opportunity to develop and reinforce skills that many children with ASD find a struggle. Tennis also has an innate give-and-take rhythm that encourages turn-taking, eye contact, focus and attending, motor planning, fine- and gross-motor skills, etc. 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, where she gets one-on-one instruction, but her aide also brings her into the mainstream class for a few minutes every day.
 
I found Zoe's desk and sat down. The teacher instructed us to open the packet the kids had prepared and to read what our child had written for their hopes and dreams when they grow up. Afraid that Zoe hadn't been able to complete the assignment in the same manner as the other kids, I hesitated before opening it up and instead listened as the other parents read aloud what they found: One kid wanted to be a veterinarian. Another wanted to be a movie star. A third wanted to be a basketball player.
 
Finally, I opened Zoe's. It pretty nearly brought me to tears as I read, “When I grow up, my dream is to be a tennis player.”

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