An hour a week, the Pauley Tennis Complex at Pomona College hosts a group of local athletes more focused on socializing and building confidence through sport than winning games.
Last fall, Sagehen tennis players Rohun Krishnan ’24 and Matthew Feng ’24 started a Claremont chapter of ACEing Autism, a national organization that helps children with autism learn tennis and improve their behavioral, social and motor skills.
Before launching the pilot program, the teammates went to the Claremont Autism Center at Claremont McKenna College, as well as other clinics around town, to spread the word.
A handful of parents signed their children up, and after a successful six-week fall session, Krishnan and Feng ran another session this spring.
“The reception was awesome,” Krishnan says. “We had parents say they loved the program.”
Krishnan, an economics major, first joined ACEing Autism while in high school in Newport Coast, Calif. The local chapter had close to 50 children who knew very little about tennis when they joined but improved every week.
“It’s really fun to see their smile when they hit their first ball,” Krishnan recalls. “It’s a very heartwarming moment.”
Feng, a neuroscience major, also learned about ACEing Autism while in high school in Arcadia, Calif., and jumped at the opportunity to run a local chapter when Krishnan broached the idea last summer.
Since the program’s inception, myriad students from the 5Cs have volunteered to lead exercises, Krishnan says.
A typical ACEing Autism class begins with warmups followed by an assortment of games to get kids comfortable swinging a racquet.
“One of the big things we emphasize is keeping a routine and using visuals,” Feng says. “We show them images of someone hitting a forehand or a backhand and lead them from there.”
Beyond teaching fundamentals, Krishnan adds, “The whole idea is just to get them interacting with their peers.”
According to an ACEing Autism survey, more than 80% of participants see improvement in their social and communication skills with volunteers and directors, while 60% of children see improvement in such ways with other participants.
Developing those bonds, Feng says, is just as critical as developing a groundstroke.
“We want to make sure the participants are having fun and socializing,” he adds.
Earlier this year, Feng recalls, the kids started to rally for longer periods, eliciting “oohs and aahs” from parents on every return.
“Starting from the first session where we were working with them on bouncing balls on their racquet, they’ve come a long way,” Feng says. “I can’t wait for them to keep improving their skills.”
With Krishnan and Feng set to graduate this academic year, it is their hope the ACEing Autism program at Pomona College continues in their stead.
“I want to see it expand and grow into something where we have many more families coming by,” Krishnan says. “There’s just a passion here. You can see everyone is very focused on the here and now rather than everything else that’s going on in life.”
A new six-week session starts October 22. Families interested in signing up can visit the ACEing Autism website.