When autistic children get the opportunity to exercise, medical research suggests they receive a wide range of benefits – from boosting motor and cognitive skills to bettering social interactions and communication.
With those benefits in mind, a national nonprofit called ACEing Autism aims to get children with autism playing tennis, and a new tennis tournament in Texas sponsored by RBC Wealth Management is helping to make that happen.
Called the RBC Pro Challenge, the tournament is hosted by the Tyler Athletic and Swim Club in Tyler, Texas, and is one of three qualifying women’s tournaments in the USTA’s Australian Open Wild Card Challenge. The tournament’s beneficiary partner is ACEing Autism, which connects autistic children with the game of tennis. As beneficiary, ACEing Autism receives a portion of all tournament proceeds.
At the first annual RBC Pro Challenge held earlier this fall, ACEing Autism hosted a free tennis clinic for local families with children with autism. And though it was only the first year, several children showed up to participate.
“As far as first years go, it hit and exceeded everyone’s expectations,” says Scott McColluch, promoter of the RBC Pro Challenge and vice president of operations for Cliff Drysdale Management, which runs the Tyler Athletic and Swim Club. “We planted a seed of what we’d love for this to grow into.”
ACEing Autism was founded in 2008 by Richard Spurling, a former professional tennis player and trainer, and his wife, a child neurologist specializing in autism and neurodevelopment disorders. They created the program after reading about research that showed how beneficial physical activity can be for kids with autism.
“Studies show that if you can get these kids active, it can really help them with other areas in their life,” says Spurling, now the organization’s executive director.
The ACEing Autism curriculum follows a standard model that can be taught one-on-one to autistic children between the ages of 5 and 18, but also maintains the flexibility to cater to a child’s individual ability. Over the course of a 50-minute lesson, volunteers teach participants about different aspects of tennis, ranging from the rules of the game to different strokes they can use. The lessons provide an exercise opportunity for participants while also allowing them to be social, which Spurling says is equally important.
“The kids develop a relationship with the volunteer, and hopefully they’re also making friends while they’re playing,” he says. “That’s an area where they can struggle a bit.”
While the RBC Pro Challenge was a first for the Tyler community, in just under 10 years ACEing Autism has established ongoing programs in more than 50 locations in 24 states, helping more than 1,000 autistic children experience tennis.
“The work they do is so incredibly valuable,” says Andy Teller, director of RBC Wealth Management’s Dallas complex, which sponsored the tournament for the first time this year. “Their clinics are a great opportunity for these kids and their families.”
With the first RBC Pro Challenge a success, ACEing Autism is working toward building a long-term program in the Tyler area. Spurling hopes to get the word out about ACEing Autism’s curriculum to local families with autistic children, and also to local volunteers with tennis experience. The eventual goal is to be able to hold an eight-week program in the winter, and a six-week program in the spring.
Spurling hopes that as the RBC Pro Challenge continues to develop in the future, so too does ACEing Autism’s local presence.
“Hopefully the tour will grow, and hopefully next year we can raise more money to grow the program here,” he says. “The most important thing for us is to get kids with autism playing tennis.”
Photos courtesy of ACEing Autism.
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