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Junior’s tennis camp targets autistic kids

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Children with autism typically struggle with motor development, hand-eye coordination and social skills. But a Columbus teen hopes he has found a way to help.

Aditya Mantri, a junior at Columbus North High school who is also a tennis player, has launched the first Indiana location of ACEing Autism.

Founded in 2008 by a professional tennis player and a child neurologist, the organization aims to make tennis available to children with autism.

Mantri has organized four weekly clinics starting July 12 at the Columbus North High School tennis courts. Now he just needs to find more participants.

He said he is passionate about tennis — he played at Northside Middle School and is a varsity player at North — and he wanted to give back to his community.

It has been a long process to bring the program to Columbus, he said, including many conversations with organization leaders in Los Angeles and a few with the founders themselves.

Sometimes the project is daunting, and Mantri said staying upbeat has been difficult at times.

Kendal Hammel, his tennis coach, and Tipton Lakes Athletic Club trainer Jim Stone have guided him through some of the logistics, which Mantri said has helped him persist.

“I felt like I couldn’t go through with it sometimes,” he said.

But he said he is excited to spend time coaching the children, and that is driving him to put on a successful inaugural ACEing Autism clinic.

The sessions are split up by age — one for players age 10 and younger and another for those 11 to 18. Sessions consist of a warmup, forehand and backhand hits, ball handling and racket drills and group games.

Mantri will lead the clinics, but he is still recruiting volunteers. Only basic tennis skills are required.

“It’s really just to help participants have a good time in a low-pressure environment,” he said.

And the benefits are clear, he said.

“At the very heart, tennis is a social game, furnishing a natural opportunity to develop and reinforce skills that many children on the (autism) spectrum find a struggle,” according to the foundation.

The give-and-take rhythm also encourages turn-taking, eye contact, focus and motor skills.

Lessons are flexible and based on each child’s skill level and personal interests. Co-founder Richard Spurling will be on site before the first session to help train volunteers, and he said he will emphasize the importance of listening to individual needs.

If a child needs a break, the youngster will get a break.

“If the child wants to talk about dinosaurs the whole time, the volunteer will say, ‘That’s great that you know so much about dinosaurs. For every five forehands you hit, you can tell me one fact about dinosaurs,’” he said.

Nancy Conner, autism coordinator for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., has been working with Mantri to develop the program and communicate the benefits to parents.

“There are not many opportunities for leisure activities for individuals with autism, thus parents are eager to involve their children,” she said. “My hope is that many others will hear about the program and sign up and give it a try.”

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