In 2008, a husband and wife combined their passions by forming a non-profit organization that helps promote the game of tennis and includes autistic children.
Richard Spurling, the founder of ACEing Autism, was a tennis coach after playing Division I for Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. He relocated to Los Angeles with his wife, Dr. Shafali Spurling Jeste, so she could work in Autism Research and Treatment at UCLA. A program that teaches autistic children tennis was a natural brainchild for them.
At tennis courts from Los Angeles to New York, volunteer coaches put on group lessons tailored for children with autism. For an hour each week, children work on the basics of the game, improve on their hand-eye coordination and get an hour of social interaction.
“It’s important that they have a set schedule because they need structure and consistency,” Spurling says. “Their week is so busy with speech lessons and social skills lessons, etc. Much of their week is blocked off, so we make [tennis] once a week.”
Parents sign their children up for a series of clinics that cost around $15 each. The flexibility of the program allows children of all needs and levels to take part, and the cost helps cover court rental, equipment and teaching materials, administrative expenses and volunteer travel costs.
Recently, ACEing Autism teamed up with Play Your Court, an innovative website founded by Scott Baxter that helps pair tennis players with the right coach. Instead of having to pay club fees or travel far distances, players can select a carefully screened coach from the database that will come to them for a more reasonable hourly price. The organization has 500 coaches in almost every state.
Spurling was actually one of the first coaches to sign up for Play Your Court in California years ago. Baxter kept seeing his name connected to ACEing Autism projects and felt the need to reach out.
“After learning a little bit more [about autism] and actually attending one of his events in Flushing Meadows in New York, I really saw just a dire need for tennis for kids on the autism spectrum,” Baxter says. “There's just not a lot of good outlets out there for them to get exercise or get that social interaction that you get with group tennis instruction.”
Today, Play Your Court donates $1 of every lesson to ACEing Autism, and helps promote the programs mission and fundraising events.
“We decided it was a great partnership for both ends,” Baxter says. “On our end our mission is to make this sport of tennis more accessible.”
On Spurling’s end, Play Your Court’s partnership increases awareness of ACEing Autism, and in doing so, helps further fund a program that relies on donations to keep itself alive.
“Having that network is great not only because of the coaches, but also all the players that are signing up for lessons so we can get the awareness out about autism and our program,” says Spurling, who was given the USPTR’s Humanitarian of Year Award in 2013.
ACEing Autism was awarded the USTA’s Community Service Award last year. It has also been featured on Tennis Channel, another one of its sponsors.
Spurling says he was amazed by Baxter and Play Your Court's generosity, but a program with this kind of a good cause really sells itself.