USPTA Elite Professional Katie Orlando (Midwest) was giving a red ball tennis lesson at wellness fair at an elementary school in Akron, Ohio, when a little boy approached. He wanted to play.
But the boy had autism, and Orlando wasn’t sure how to get him involved. She spoke with the boy’s mother and mentioned ACEing Autism as a great way to get him on the court.
The exchange left an impression on Orlando. She’d never worked with an autistic child before, but she knew she wanted to help. So in May, Orlando started an ACEing Autism program at her club, the Towpath Tennis Center in Akron.
Each lesson lasts one hour on Wednesdays for six weeks. Orlando has put on three of these six-week sessions so far, with plans for more.
“It’s growing,” Orlando said. “It’s slow, but I’m glad it’s slow because I’m learning as well. I’ve never taught this community before. There’s a lot of learning and educating myself. The volunteers have to be educated. It’s a process.”
Orlando has plenty of help, though. ACEing Autism provides her with programming ideas and equipment. And when she’s running her sessions, she ensures each athlete has at least one trained helper on the court with them.
“I give the parents an hour off. They need the hour off,” Orlando said. “It’s a challenge. I know, I do this for an hour and I’m exhausted. They do it 24/7.”
The kids range from 7 to 12 years old and have “every spectrum of autism possible.”
“I’ll honestly tell you, I don’t think I’ve ever gone out there and my whole lesson plan gets done,” Orlando said. “I have to be flexible and realize no one got hurt today, everyone got sweaty and hot and they all got exercise and that’s good.”
As simple as that may sound, it’s essential. Often times, kids with autism don’t get the exercise they need and don’t sleep very well. So even if they’re not actually hitting a ball, Orlando and her team get them to run around, work on hand-eye coordination and just have fun.
And they’ve actually progressed from red ball to orange. They’re getting better.
“They’re a real team out there. They know each other’s names,” she said. “One girl used to wear a headset all the time. Now, she doesn’t even have her headset on.”
The team also includes the athletes’ parents. They support one another, and the word of mouth has actually helped the sessions grow from four kids in the first one to eight in the current one.
“I just want to make sure I do some justice to this community and help them out as much as I can,” Orlando said. “If it grows, that’s great. I just hope there’s something we can give them back.”
Tennis has always been part of Orlando’s life. She played four years NCAA Division I at the University of Akron and was the first female tennis player in the school’s athletic hall of fame. She started working at Towpath as a staff pro during her final semester. Twenty-seven years later, she’s still at it.
“Just like with me as a child, tennis has really helped me to become a better person and grow. A better speaker. It gave me a lot of tools. I hope I’m giving them some kind of tools too, because tennis is a great sport to learn a lot of different things.”