Tennis Starts with Love, and Grows through Inclusion

Autism, also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. According to the Center for Disease Control, ASD is prevalent in the United States at an estimated 1 in 68 births, meaning more than 3.5 million Americans live with ASD. But what does it mean to live with ASD? What does it look like for those who have no experience with it? And what does tennis have to do with it?

There is no one “right way” to illustrate what ASD may look like for a parent or child. The reality is that ASD manifests itself in a variety of ways with a long list of possible “symptoms” that help with diagnosing an individual. Treatments for children with the disorder involve behavioral therapies designed to improve learning, communication and social skills. However, these treatments often times do not include participation in a physical activity. This is because physical activity may be challenging for individuals with autism for a variety of reasons. A child exhibiting limited motor function, low motivation, difficulty in planning, or difficulty in self-monitoring may find it more difficult to participate in different activities than a child who does not.

But did you know that prevalence of childhood obesity is higher among children with ASD than children who do not have ASD? In the U.S. more than half of all children with ASD are either overweight or at risk (19 percent overweight and 36 percent at-risk). It is not hard to understand why; physical activity involving team sports can present a difficult situation for someone with autism. This is why individual sports, like tennis, are sometimes a more appropriate addition to autism intervention programs than team sports.

Here is a breakdown of exactly what tennis has to offer and why it is a good fit:

  1. Tennis is not just an individual sport, it celebrates being an individual! This means that the player is responsible for every move they make and, since there is no team to depend on, their success is their own. Celebrating a player’s own success easily translates to a player developing more self-confidence and, in turn, higher self-esteem.
  2. Tennis is strategic. You will often hear that tennis is 90 percent mental. That is because there is a lot of strategy involved in playing a match. Especially because there is no one else to lean on during a match, a player has the opportunity to work independently which helps develop a player’s ability to problem solve.
  3. Tennis is social without the pressure to BE social. Because tennis is an individual sport, there is no pressure to work with other players to achieve success on the court. However, tennis allows for players to engage socially without forcing players too far out of their comfort zone. By pairing individual attention with group activities, tennis programs, especially ones specifically for persons with ASD, help with the development of social skills but on the player’s terms.
  4. Tennis helps with focus and hand-eye coordination. To develop the skills to play tennis there is a lot of repetition. Whether it is learning to hit a volley or a forehand, learning how to play tennis requires repeating this skill over and over and over again. For players with ASD, this helps not only with focusing on the task at hand, but it also helps develop hand-eye coordination, which is important both on and off the court.

At this point in the article, I am sure many of you are thinking “this is great, but what does this all cost?” And this is a valid (and very good!) question.

The average U.S. cost of autism over a lifespan is estimated to be $1 million more for a person with an intellectual disability than for a person living without an intellectual disability. What’s more, the national cost of supporting children with autism is estimated to be $61 billion a year with the costs for supporting autistic adults almost tripling that figure at an estimated $175 billion a year. To put those figures into perspective, if you could save $10,000 every single day, it would take you 16,612 years to save 61 billion dollars.

Even though these figures are collective of all persons living with ASD in the U.S., the added cost of living with an intellectual disability is real. That is why USTA MAS offers nonprofit organizations an opportunity to apply for an Inclusion Program Grant. These grants are open to nonprofits that provide tennis programs that cater to the needs of those living with intellectual and/or physical disabilities. Whether the program is completely free or provided at a much lower cost, the goal of the Inclusion Grant is to chip away at that daunting figure stated above. Even though, individually, we do not plan on being around for 16,000 years, we hope that through our Inclusion Program Grant and the work of our partner organizations, tennis programs will be around to support this community for longer.

Helen Li is the Development and Engagement Manager at USTA Mid-Atlantic. She has started learning how to play tennis and recently played in her first USTA League match!