Swings for Success: ACEing Autism gets autistic kids into the tennis game

Posted on March 1, 2017

For families with children living with autism, most of the assistance they seek is typically focused on the essentials — education, communication, and emotional support. Still, many autistic kids may be missing another very important element: play. ACEing Autism is a tennis-focused program working to change that.

Richard Spurling grew up playing and enjoying all the physical and social benefits intrinsic to tennis. Spurling followed the game into adulthood, teaching the sport after attending college on a tennis scholarship. He continued to teach tennis while pursuing his MBA. Spurling met his wife, Shafali Jeste, during her residency in Boston on the way to becoming a pediatric neurologist. Jeste noticed a number of autism cases among her patients, and inquired whether there were any play-based programs for kids with autism. Spurling could find none.

Informed by what Jeste had learned from her work and bolstered by the growing awareness of autism spectrum disorders, Spurling was inspired to present the concept of using tennis as a means to serve autistic children as his MBA project. Following completion of his degree, he launched the first ACEing Autism curriculum in 2008 in the Boston area.

In the multi-week program, instructors are trained to work with autistic kids and receive all their teaching supplies. The participants are provided needed equipment, at a minimal cost (scholarships are also available). A second program began in 2009, and more launches followed at clubs, public facilities, colleges, and high schools throughout the East.

Swings for Success

ACEing Autism at the 2016 US Open

The couple relocated to California in 2010 when Jeste, a La Jolla native, joined the Center for Autism Research & Treatment at UCLA. Spurling launched ACEing Autism there as the programs continued to flourish on the East Coast. By 2012, ACEing Autism had grown into a full-time operation for Spurling, who now expanded the curriculum in the West. When he signed up two years ago to play in Cliff Drysdale Tennis’ “Tennis With The Stars” event in Indian Wells, he didn’t realize it would lead to a partnership between ACEing and the tennis Hall of Famer’s national tennis management company.

With 45 programs now operating nationwide, Spurling is on pace to add 12 more locations this year. Three of those locations will be at Drysdale-run tennis centers. This month, the program will debut at Omni La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, with Omni Rancho Las Palmas in Rancho Mirage to follow in April.

“There are so many families who need us,” says Spurling. “They need a program where parents can connect, and the kids are getting exercise, working on their hand-eye coordination, improving their motor skills, even helping with their language. The exercise improves their cognitive ability, and they’re making friends. Plus, volunteers are learning how to work with kids with autism and learning about autism. It becomes a really cool community event.” aceingautism.org   Deanna Murphy

ACEing Autism

ACEing Autism at the 2016 US Open

Photography by Alex Huggan

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