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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Tennis teams work on ACEing Autism on the weekends

Published: November 13, 2009
Section: Sports

Saturday afternoons seem to be a time for college kids to rest. Some people sleep right through it, or if they’re up early, they go do something fun with friends like a trip into the city or some time at the mall. For both the men’s and women’s Brandeis tennis teams, Saturday is a day for something else: giving back.

At 4 p.m. while their peers might be catching a movie, these Brandeis students gather in Wayland to teach tennis to autistic children. The program, called ACEing Autism, was started by Richard Spurling and his wife Shafali Spurling Jeste, a pediatric neurologist who specializes in autism.

“She and I had always wanted to start a nonprofit,” Spurling told The Hoot, “and when she learned that many of her patients’ parents were driving all over to find programs for their kids we decided to start to offer a tennis program for children with autism.”

“The Brandeis tennis players have been a great partnership for our program,” he added.

Along with other volunteers, the Brandeis tennis teams help run the clinics as tennis pros. Once they break off into small groups, each player usually has two or three kids. They focus on teaching the basics, which, as men’s captain Seth Rogers ’10 pointed out, can be quite difficult at times.

“Some of the lower functioning kids provide some more excitement,” Rogers said. “They will run around the courts in circles for 15 minutes straight, or put their foreheads on the handle of the tennis racquet and spin around in place until they get so dizzy they fall over.”

When things like that happen Rogers and the other players try to refocus the child to the task at hand and do their best to get them engaged in the game. “In most cases, by the end of the 45 minute session the child has hit some tennis balls and had a lot of fun,” he explained.

Not only do these children get to learn the game of tennis, but they work on their hand-eye coordination and improve their health and fitness. In addition to the physical benefits the clinics also teach them social skills and help build their self-confidence.

“It is a program that is great for these kids on so many levels,” Spurling said

The benefits for the children are immediately recognizable. For Rogers and the other Brandeis students, it’s rewarding to see the results of their efforts. Being able to share something they’re passionate about and see some of their love for the game come alive in these kids is one of the greatest parts for the team.

“Seeing these kids enjoy being active with other autistic kids and learning tennis basics is great, and what it’s all about,” Rogers said. “Also, ACEing is an outlet for parents who may feel frustration at times, which is completely understandable when raising a child afflicted with an autism spectrum disorder.” As Rogers pointed out, autism is not something that merely affects the child, but also has a lasting impact on the family. Many parents with autistic children struggle to find programs for them to participate in as it can be difficult for some to partake in sports activities with what one parent called “typical peers.” There can be a real sense of frustration when their child is missing on out such a normal part of their development as learning a sport, but with ACEing Autism, they are given that chance.

“I see the excitement in her eyes when she runs onto the court and the pride in her face when she makes contact with the ball. As a parent, it gets me every time,” Mira Spiegel said in a testimonial on the program’s website. “Each week, ACEing Autism is helping us to get back a little piece of what we were so afraid autism had taken away.”

A new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal published in early October found that the rate of this disorder is increasing, with an estimated one in every 91 children in the United States affected by the some form of autism. With numbers like these, the importance of programs like ACEing Autism becomes even more apparent.

While this is an organization currently only the Brandeis tennis teams are involved in, Spurling encourages anyone interested in learning more to contact him. To do so please visit www.

“If there are other Brandeis students interested in volunteering with our program we ask them to come and view the program and also get in contact with the tennis team to learn of their experiences,” he said.

Through participating in the clinic, Rogers and the rest of the Brandeis team have gotten to better understand autism and see the change these children have made in their lives.

“ACEing has been an incredible experience for me,” Rogers said. “It makes me feel proud and optimistic; proud of my teammates and the other volunteers who make this possible- that people can really get together and make a difference in others happiness.”

By giving back, Rogers has also learned to value what he has in his life. “I’ve become more aware of how fortunate many of us are, and what we have- that is the ability to play a varsity sport, hell to play a sport at all, and go to college, and simply be a member of the world who is able to perceive, hear, see, and feel so fully- is a gift. A very special gift.”