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Advantage Autism: La Jolla tennis clinic helps special needs players thrive

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Advantage Autism coaches and participants
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

In tennis, “advantage” is used to indicate who has taken the lead in a certain type of scoring. If those with the advantage win the next point, they will have won the game.

At Advantage Autism — a free tennis clinic for children on the autism spectrum housed at the La Jolla Tennis Club every Saturday founded by twin sisters and Bishop’s School students Elizabeth and Catherine Stuart-Chaffoo — the advantages are greater than that.

The weekly clinics provide a place for small groups of players to practice, socialize with peers and build their confidence. Taking extra effort to implement measures that comfort children with autism, the clinics meet on the same court, at the same time and day each week; coaches use different learning aids (such as visual cues or holding the racket over the player’s hands to demonstrate a move); and groups are kept small.

“We are not professional coaches, but we look for people who are on tennis teams or members of the Tennis Club to volunteer,” Elizabeth said. “We try to have a one-to-one ratio for these kids.”

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After becoming a 501(c)3 non-profit so the organization can accept donations and possibly hire a “real” coach, Advantage Autism started its weekly gatherings a year ago. The program was inspired by a close family member of the Stuart-Chaffoo sisters. This family member has autism, and wanted to explore tennis, but was quickly discouraged by his coach and told there was no hope for him.

“The coach extinguished (our family member’s) passion and didn’t treat him like the other players,” Catherine said. “My sister and I also love to play tennis and wanted everyone to have that same passion. It was sad for us to see our family member treated that way, so we decided to make an environment where players with autism feel welcome, and give them the opportunity our family member didn’t have.”

With tennis skills to boot, the 17-year-old sisters have been playing since they were six and play on The Bishop’s School varsity tennis team.

“Tennis, for me,” Catherine told the Light, “is a stress reliever, and igniting that passion in others makes me very happy. Seeing kids who are like my family member smile is something I couldn’t get anywhere else. Though my sister and I are twins, we are are polar opposite people, and tennis is the only thing we have in common.”

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That, and a caring attitude.

“Because it’s a cause we both care about, it means so much to see it succeed and we’ve built such close relationships with these kids,” Elizabeth added. “They are so excited to be here ... it’s the best part of my week.”

While the sisters can’t undo the unpleasant experience their family member had, they have made a difference for another little boy: 10-year-old Lake. Lake was diagnosed with autism in January, and his family found Advantage Autism soon after.

His mother, Anna McAllister explained: “The thing about autism that people forget – because get obsessed with the intellectual and academic parts and get worried about the deficits – is that social relationships need to be cultivated. So it’s really important for kids and adults with autism to have opportunities like this, and they are hard to find.”

Although he wasn’t enthused at first — and may have just said “OK fine” when his mother encouraged him to go — Lake now looks forward to his weekly tennis practices.

“He’s developed this great connection to tennis and this group,” McAllister said. “I’ve never seen the spark from him I see with this. My son is a very trusting and open person, but as loving as he is, it’s only every once in a while that he will develop a real friendship with someone. Elizabeth is one of them. Elizabeth knows how to instruct the group, she leads with her heart and that’s beautiful to watch. Kids with autism need a lot of praise and a lot of encouragement, and a lot of adults don’t have the ability to give that. This is a very loving group of people.”

She added that Lake has expressed interest in going out for the school tennis team when he is older, and volunteering with other kids with special needs. He even had a tennis-themed birthday party in August.

“It’s hard to find groups for kids with special needs where they really click,” McAllister said. “When special needs children find a passion, they light up from the inside and it carries over and builds confidence you normally don’t see. When you have that strong sense of self confidence, there is so much hope.”

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— Advantage Autism meets 1:30-2:30 p.m. Saturdays at La Jolla Tennis Club, 7632 Draper Ave. Learn more at advantageautism.yolasite.com


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