Home > In Their Own Words > Because Every Child Deserves a Chance to Play

Because Every Child Deserves a Chance to Play

This ‘In Their Own Words,’ is by Shannon Knall, the Autism Speaks Connecticut Advocacy Chair and proud mother of three awesome boys, one of whom is on the autism spectrum.

J walks around in circles in the corner of the tennis court.   His head is down. His hands are busily twitching and flapping.  Every now and then he mutters. A young woman and a young man circle around him, bouncing a tennis ball every now and then. They offer him a racquet, gently encouraging him to join the kids on the court.  He seems not to hear. They back away to give him space.

For the next three hours, the young woman and the young man, the boy’s tennis “coaches”, make repeated futile attempts to bring him into the group. He has two clear words; “nope” and an expletive. 

I watch J and his coaches for a while.  It is obvious that he is horribly uncomfortable, needs his space to adjust. I feel a familiar pit in my stomach. It’s the same one I get when I watch my boy plummet into his own world of autism.

This is the first day of Well Served Tennis Academy for kids with autism; a camp I created with a friend and fellow tennis player with grant funding from the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the Connecticut Council of Independent Living and Jocelyn’s Run, a local autism group.

Hosted on the grounds of the beautiful Ethel Walker School in Simsbury,CT, our goal was to create a social and athletic opportunity for kids with autism – kids who rarely get that opportunity. And by rarely, I mean almost never.

The Perfect Racquet, a local tennis shop donated all of our equipment so that each camper could leave with a racquet to hopefully allow for continued play. Our staff is completely volunteer, even the tennis pros.  Each child has at least one coach helping him with drills; taking a walk with him when he needs to take a break; holding his hand as they run a warm-up lap of the courts; high-fiving when contact is made with the ball.

After the third day of camp, I sent the following in an e-mail to our sponsors:

I felt compelled to write to you tonight after processing the day’s events at camp.

As you know, the autism spectrum is wide and varied, making it ever-more complicated to understand and/or treat effectively.  This certainly applies at Well Served Tennis Academy.

A boy named J started Monday. J has very little language. Monday he spent a great deal of the morning sitting in a corner of the court.  His volunteer coaches did engage him in exercises like sandwich races (two racquets together, ball in the middle – the goal to work on ball control, hand/eye coordination, moving the ball across the space of the racquet) and J did great. That was the only activity he participated in that day. Our goal is about exposure on the kids’ terms.  

After snack, his coaches, Trevor and Catherine figured out that they could have him push the ball against the fence or the court with the racquet and in so doing significantly raise his level of participation. J was squealing with delight.

On Tuesday, J participated in sandwich activity AND walked around the perimeter of the courts, picked up some balls and allowed his coaches to get on the ground with him and bounce the ball to him. I held the racquet with him and hit the ball back. We did this a lot. I was so happy he was ENGAGING!  And more importantly, J was again SQUEALING with joy.

On Wednesday, it rained. Ruh Roh. We went inside to the gym. I was very concerned about the kids’ tolerance for the noise and heat, but they did great. J started off bouncing the ball back and forth with his coaches. Mid-morning, I worked with him on holding the racquet while the coaches bounced a ball to him…and we hit it back. Over and over and over again. Finally, he needed a break so he sat down.

During breaks, J would sit with Catherine and lean against her, rub her hand and try so very hard to say her name. When he was ready again, he said “Trevor run”. AMAZING!

We made a game out of running Trevor around the gym. I guided him as he hit the ball back from Trevor’s tosses…all over the place so that he could watch Trevor RUN!  Suddenly and spontaneously, he stood up and allowed me to guide his racquet in a semi-forehand stroke to HIT THE BALL as it was fed to him. TEN times.  He sat down, and five minutes later did it again. He was so unbelievably happy that he was screeching with delight and well…left me with teary eyes.

I really wanted to share this with you because I want you to know that your support has made a PROFOUND impact on J, his fellow campers and all of us who have the privilege of working with them.  I have seen every kid grow day by day and it has been EXACTLY what I hoped and KNEW this camp could be.

As a mom to a child with autism, I am so grateful for the opportunity you have helped to secure for these children.

Tennis champion Boris Becker said, “I love the winning, I can take the losing, but most of all I love to play.”

Between the two camp sessions, we will give almost twenty-five children with autism a chance to play tennis on their own terms, at their own pace, with all the love and support we can.

Because EVERY child deserves a chance to play.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“In Their Own Words” is a series within the Autism Speaks blog which shares the voices of people who have autism, as well as their loved ones. If you have a story you wish to share about your personal experience with autism, please send it to editors@autismspeaks.org. Autism Speaks reserves the right to edit contributions for space, style and content. Because of the volume of submissions, not all can be published on the site.

  1. June 25, 2011 at 10:38 am

    Spectacular. What a gift you have shared with all involved – volunteers and the kids who play – MAGICAL.

    Thank you for sharing – I truly hope this is the beginning of so much more to come for those who just need a place to be AWESOME.

  2. t
    June 25, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Love this! There isn’t much for children on the spectrum around here but I will say that our community always rallies around a child in need when and where they can (I love my community!). Thank you!

  3. Sandy DiMario
    June 25, 2011 at 11:36 am

    WOW !! Shows how the effort to share things with autistic children, things they wouldn’t normally choose to do on their own or be in the situation to learn, can make a huge impact like enjoying a sport like tennis !! I’m betting the coaches get as much if not more out of this experience!!
    Sandy DiMario

  4. Noreen
    June 25, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    I know some people will get insulted with this comment but Random Acts of Kindness need to start early. I think this is the Big Guy teaching us all a lesson. We need to take action when our children are not acting Kind and teach them the Right thing to do. It is our job as parents to make sure our kids are Kind, especially to those who are in need of assistance and a little extra patience. PATIENCE is also a gift that we need to bestow on our children. We need to teach them to wait and with Autism, we all have learned what little PATIENCE we have. God grant us patience but Quickly :)

  5. lynne elmore
    June 25, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    my son is usually good socially but there are times when he is hard to be around because he gets upset in big crowds in doors & if something changes without warning he gets really fustrated & upset.he doesn’t seem to be to bothered by crowds when they are outside.when he goes into his little ball of non communcative i get fustrsated because i can’t seem tio reach him;his cousin,grandmother,& sister seem to be able to bring him out of it but i can’t;i don’t know what i’ll do with his sister leaving for college in september so there won’t be anyone in the house with us during the week & on the weekends except for when his sister comes home for a weekend.

  6. June 25, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Fantastic. Reminds me of my son’s camp, Camp Bee A Friend, which is a peer day camp, half typically developing peers, half kids on the spectrum, and a lot of staff. We have the option to work on ‘goals’ or just have fun for 2 weeks. Most parents choose ‘fun’. It is two weeks of the year that my son has no therapy (I cancel the appointments), no school, nothing. Just fishing and swimming and arts and crafts and sports and playing and feeding bunnies and just EVERYTHING. Play is SO IMPORTANT, he made more strides in those two weeks last year with one issue he had than he did in the entire 8 years before that. He actually ATE food that he was given. Just food. Whatever they had. Just ate food. Without it being a goal. Playing and peers and fun and understanding goes a long way.

  7. June 25, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Oh, this is amazing!!!!! It brought tears to my eyes. Just tears. I could just see little J’s delight in hitting the ball!!! You are an amazing advocate!! I applaud you!! I thank you!!! I have no other words but just beautiful!!!

  8. anonymous
    June 25, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    I graduated from Ethel Walker last year. It’s great to know the tennis courts there are being used for a great cause like this :)

  9. June 27, 2011 at 3:05 am

    This is so beautiful – love it…got a bit choked up….Thank you for sharing…

  10. June 27, 2011 at 8:10 am

    I wish they did that here in East Hartford, CT. My son would love that. Thanks for sharing your story. I love to hear beautiful stories like this. Congrats to J!!!

  11. June 27, 2011 at 8:10 pm


  12. Pepper Pascal
    July 10, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    What a wonderful, beautiful, and blessed idea…

  13. July 14, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    You are a true inspiration to people who are advocates of autism awareness and inclusion; you you are a “savior” and I am so proud that you have done something like this. As a parent of a child with autism I know how difficult it is for them to socialize – and how difficult it is to find social settings that can adapt and include things for autistic children to partake in. Again, thank you for this!

  1. July 11, 2011 at 2:20 pm
  2. July 15, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: