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Daddy, I Talk In My Own Way— A Story Of A Child With Autism

Scarlett Zhiqi Chen |
January 27, 2015 | 12:23 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

The 12-year-old boy puts his feet parallels to the baseline with a red racket holds tightly in his right hand. He slowly tosses a yellow tennis ball in the air, while his eyes moving up to follow its path. As the ball starts to drop, the boy raises his racket overhead and strikes the ball squarely. 

Asher playing Tennis (Scarlett Zhiqi Chen/Neon Tommy)
Asher playing Tennis (Scarlett Zhiqi Chen/Neon Tommy)

The ball flies over the net in a circular arc. 

The man standing behind the boy smiles. Two and half years ago he would have never thought he would see the same boy make a serve like this.  

The boy is Asher Major. He was diagnosed with autism when he was four years old. The man behind him is his father, Clarence.

It was in the spring of 2012 when Clarence Major first considered tennis for his son who is diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (a disorder under autism spectrum), after hearing a lecture by Shafali Jeste, an assistant professor in psychiatry and neurology at UCLA and the co-founder of Aceing Autism. The group employs the fun of playing tennis to bring physical exercise and communication skills to autistic children. Jeste’s studies specialized in autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders. She has been working with autistic children for many years and learned there were few recreational clubs for those children. In 2008, she founded Aceing Autism with his husband Richard Spurling, a tennis professional in Boston to teach children tennis. 

 “Tennis gives them a way to have fun,” Jeste said. “It also teaches them important skills, such as focusing and having back and forth interactions with other kids through hitting the balls.  It also improves their hand-eye

Asher brings pencils wherever he goes (Scarlett Zhiqi Chen/Neon Tommy)
Asher brings pencils wherever he goes (Scarlett Zhiqi Chen/Neon Tommy)
and motor skills. It’s a great exercise too.”   

As a national organization, Aceing Autism has 32 locations in 12 States. More than 500 children practice tennis with them every week.

On a Saturday morning a few weeks after the lecture, Clarence Major took Asher to the Burbank Tennis Center and registered for the 10-week program.

“It was frustrating,” said Clarence.  

At first Asher failed to show a strong interest in tennis. He could only focus for ten minutes. He would say he was tired and lie down on the court while other children were still practicing. Or he would drop the racket and run off the court. Clarence had to chase after him and walk him back. Sometimes he would stalk off into the bushes, scooping up sticks or handfuls of sand and throwing them back to the ground.

But sometimes Asher could play tennis for 20 to 30 minutes. 

“The interest came up and down,” said Clarence.

Clarence teaching Asher how to make a better serve (Scarlett Zhiqi Chen/Neon Tommy)
Clarence teaching Asher how to make a better serve (Scarlett Zhiqi Chen/Neon Tommy)

Clarence and his wife Suzette Major were not sure if tennis could make any more of difference than the other sports Asher had tried. 

“Growing up with autism, Asher has had to go to a lot of therapies,” said Clarence. “We wanted him to also have fun and to get exercise.”

The parents had taken Asher to soccer and baseball practices and to karate and swimming classes. None of these worked. Soccer was too overwhelming for Asher. It was too hot for him and the sound of the coach’s whistle and the shouting of his teammates, imploring him to pass the ball, made him anxious. 

According to the Autism Research Institute, people on the autism spectrum have a dysfunctional sensory system. Senses can be either over- or under-reactive to stimulation. To Asher, the sound from the soccer field felt like someone was shouting to him through a loud speaker. 

Asher does love swimming. The pressure of the water in the pool makes him feel secure. 

According to the Journal of Children and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, deep touch pressure, such as firm touching and swaddling or surrounding waters can produce a sense of calm to children with psychiatric disorders. 

But for Clarence and Suzette swimming was not enough to count as an extracurricular activity. They didn’t give up on tennis.

Clarence had begun to see a change in his son.  Asher had begun asking Clarence to take him back to the court 30 minutes after he voluntarily left the practice. Asher would try to unlock the car and run to the court before Clarence fully parked in the stall. For the first time Clarence thought it might worth a try to let Asher have private practice, since he was nervous playing tennis in a group. Asher was unable to use the most elementary social skills, and was not comfortable when with people he did know well. Spurling introduced coach Jim Speir, a volunteer at Aceing Autism, to the Majors.

Speir, certified by United Sates Professional Tennis Association, has over 30 years experience. But Asher was the first special needs child that Speir taught a one-on-one basis.

“In the beginning, he [Asher] didn’t know too much about tennis,” said Speir. “He didn’t have a lot of social skills.” 

Coach Speir practicing with Asher (Scarlett Zhiqi Chen/Neon Tommy)
Coach Speir practicing with Asher (Scarlett Zhiqi Chen/Neon Tommy)
Asher wouldn’t look into Speir’s eyes when the coach told him how to serve the ball. After serving he would chase after the ball and not resume playing tennis until he got the ball back in his hand. It didn’t matter how many balls Clarence had prepared for him to practice. Asher would only want the ball he served. Or he would kneel down and organize his colorful unused pencils, which he carried with him everywhere, on the ground. 

 “When work with Asher, I have to be very flexible on where his moods are for the day, ” said Speir. 

The medicine Asher takes also has an influence on his mood. Speir learned how to communicate with Asher through time, by researching about autism, and by talking to Clarence.

 “I have to learn to get him to talk to me and tell me what he wants,” said Speir.

Instead of telling Speir he wants to play, Asher would hit a ball to Speir. 

“In the beginning, he would hit the ball really hard and the ball would hit me,” said Speir.  “So I would tell him: ‘Asher, you need to tell me what you want.’”

Asher expressed his frustration differently. But that never upset Speir; he tried to absorve every challenge Asher had for him. About a month after their first private practice, Speir suggested Clarence buy a rebound net at home so that Asher could play tennis in the yard. 

“I noticed that Asher couldn’t get enough from the weekly private practice, ” said Speir. 

Clarence and Suzette hesitated.

 “We are afraid to buy stuff for Asher,” said Suzette. “We would buy something for him and he would never use it.”  

Eventually Clarence and Suzette bought the rebound net and now Asher plays tennis with it every day, before and after school. His passion for tennis grows every day. One night, weeks after they bought the rebound net, Suzette opened Asher’s bedroom door to check if he was asleep. She pushed the door halfway open and saw Asher sleeping with his arms around his tennis racket. 

“It was so cute to see that,” said Suzette. “Now he carries his tennis gear everywhere he goes.”

The anecdote also melted Speir’s heart. “I was really happy to hear that,” he said.   

Unlike teaching an ordinary child, Speir has to demonstrate every move, such as how to swing the racket and how to hit a volley, many times. 

 “Because children on the spectrum, they don’t look at you when you’re talking to them,” said Speir. “The strategy of teaching Asher is showing. You need to let them know what you want them to do.” 

The repetitive demonstration and prompting didn’t wear out the 59-year-old coach’s patience. Speir, a tall man with broad shoulders and gray hair, said tennis is part of his life. His eyes filled with tears when he recounted the progress Asher has made.

“I love to see Asher smile when he reach the goal we set,” said Speir. “He has the most beautiful smile in the world.”

It was in an afternoon practice, months after the private lessons started, when Speir decided to challenge Asher.  He served him with a high shot. Asher saw the ball coming and moved backwards with it. He smashed the ball back to Speir.

“For any adult beginners, the shot would be really hard to get,” said Speir. “But Asher timed it really well and he got it.”

Speir saw the potential in Asher and feels that soon Asher can return to group tennis practices. 

“We are aiming to let Asher play in a high school tennis team,” said Speir. “This could also lead to a future career.”

In October a year after finishing the group lessons, Asher revisited Aceing Autism. The practice was at 10 a.m. Asher was ready hours before. He played air tennis in the living room and juggled the ball on his racket. When his younger brother Gad walked through the room, Asher asked him if he could throw a ball to him so he could practice a service return. 

Asher serving a ball (Scarlett Zhiqi Chen/Neon Tommy)
Asher serving a ball (Scarlett Zhiqi Chen/Neon Tommy)
His parents’ car parked outside the tennis courts, Asher bolted from the car before it had come to a full stop, and dashed to the court without waiting his parents. 

 “I am ready,” Asher Major said to his mother once they had all reached the court.  He balled his hands into fists. He made an intense face to his mother to show he was ready to play hard. 

During the one-hour practice, Asher followed every step Aceing Autism volunteers told him to do. He was surrounded by other children who have autism, but this time he didn’t run away. 

“Mommy, look at me.”

He smiled and quickly waved his arms to his mom, who was sitting in the bleachers. Suzette gently waved back to her son. Her eyes were full of love.  

“Mommy is watching,” she called out. 

Asher’s performance stood out among those of the other students. At the end of practice, he asked Spurling to challenge him. Spurling served; Asher responded with a strong forehand. Spurling volleyed; Asher ran closer to the net and swung a backhand. Asher didn’t miss. 

 “Asher is unique,” said Spurling. 

The memory of Asher’s first tennis is still fresh.

 “It is amazing to see how he has improved in tennis,” said Speir.

The improvement is not only seen in Asher’s tennis performance, but also in his communication skills and physical condition. 

“He is more confident than before,” said Suzette Major. For their family, said Asher’s mother, “it means hope.”

Reach Staff Reporter Scarlett Zhiqi Chen here



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