The Shelter in Place order we are experiencing has changed the way we conduct our daily lives, finding many Americans working from home and students experiencing extended distance learning for the first time. The conditions can be especially challenging for young children, and even harder for kids who have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Children with autism thrive on structure, and being outdoors and active, so this time is extremely difficult for them.
April is Autism Awareness Month, a time when programs like Southern California-based ACEing Autism are in the spotlight and being recognized. ACEing Autism founder and executive director Richard Spurling recently said that all local programming has been halted. “We’re just on hold,” he said. “It’s a very challenging time. We are essentially looking at doing nothing until the fall.”
Spurling started ACEing Autism in Massachusetts in 2008 and soon after he and his wife Dr. Shafali Spurling Jeste moved west as she began a job at UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment.
“It’s a challenging time for parents,” Spurling said. “The routine is gone and parents are trying to work from home and monitoring their kids, and they have to be hands on. One of our board members has a daughter with autism and one day spent six hours with her in front of the computer working on schoolwork and classes she’s doing.”
Spurling said for the past two weeks his group has posted short videos on Tuesday on the website aceingautism.org called “Tennis Tuesday” with exercises that parents and kids can do at home.
There are currently 82 ACEing Autism programs in 30 states nationwide. “This year because of the pandemic just about everything’s been cancelled,” Spurling said. “We will not be able to hold our gala which serves our main fundraiser, and each April we do something called a Racquet Run where the kids run a 1 and 5K race with racquet in hand.”
Before the Miami Open last month, the first ACEing Academy was to take place. The two-and-a-half-day conference was to bring together program directors from all across the nation to share stories and experiences of working on the tennis court with autistic children. While team sports can be a bit overwhelming, many parents have found that individual sports like tennis can provide their children the physical, social and mental development they need.
City of Ojai Recreation Department Head Tennis Professional Scott Burton teaches tennis to several autistic children. He said he tries not to alter his teaching methods. “It’s really organic and comes from the heart and the responses I’ve received from the athletes has been amazing,” Burton said. “The kids continue blossom and they are receptive to direction. It’s really been rewarding to see these students thrive and fit into our tennis programs here at Libbey Park.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity as an educator to play tennis with the kids. I’m reminded daily why I do this work. The rewards are written on the kids faces.”
Spurling said this break will give him and the ACEing Autism board a chance to look back over the past 12 years and see how the program has grown and progressed. “We’ve done very well to reach kids and build programs,” Spurling said. “We want to improve on the way we are measuring our programming. We have started an evaluation program with two members visiting programs and evaluating how programs are doing and can improve.”
Spurling said his program has worked to get into more autism schools and that programming was added to five more schools in the past 12 months. “We want to be in more autism schools,” he said. “We will continue to work with colleges and high schools and tennis clubs, but we will make more of a focus of getting in autism schools. I think we have fallen short on some of our developmental goals over the past few years so we are looking forward to re-focusing and doing what we can to get better.”