Boston School Brings Tennis to Students With Autism

HYDE PARK, MA- The game of tennis has recently been making a significant impact in the lives of three dozen students in Hyde Park, MA. Since mid April, Boston Community Leadership Academy (BCLA), which serves the largest population of high school students on the autism spectrum in Massachusetts, has introduced tennis into its multidisciplinary classroom (MDC) with the help of a USTA Eastern Mass. grant.

Boasting an already well-diversified MDC curriculum that features academics, music, art, sports and real-world work experience, tennis provides these students with a new opportunity to learn essential skills.

“What’s nice about tennis is that it’s not a contact sport, so you’re really concentrating on the hand-eye coordination and not the other dynamics,” said BCLA Principal Brett Dickens.

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Since her students attended School Tennis Week last fall at Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center in Dorchester, MA, Dickens came to the realization that it was time to present the sport she has played her whole life to the students she spends every day with.

“From that day we went over to Sportsmen’s, all the kids were saying how much they love tennis and how they wanted to play more. I saw a ton of joy in the success of hitting the ball over the net, and finding opportunities for students with disabilities to play sports is wonderful,” Dickens said.

And soon after receiving the grant, Dickens teamed up with Sportsmen’s to bring tennis to BCLA. Through Sportsmen’s Match Point program, which brings healthy, fun, physical activity through tennis to under-served local youth, MDC students are now playing twice a week. They work on basic skills, technique, concentration and focus, and after just one month of playing, Dickens is already seeing both excitement and major improvements from her students.

“From day one to now, I’ve seen some amazing progress. Some of them are at the point where they can almost rally back and forth, and that’s exciting to see,” Dickens said.

Through a USTA equipment grant, BCLA also received racquets, ball and nets, to transform their gym space into their own personalized tennis courts.

“I don’t usually play tennis, but this program makes it very enjoyable for me,” said Martin Tran, an 18-year-old student in the program. “It’s quite an experience. It’s definitely interactive and I’m looking forward to playing more tennis because of this.”

The students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program though. BCLA alum (Class of 2013) and tennis pro at Sportsmen’s, Mark-Anthony Kenney, works with them once a week, and wouldn’t trade his time there for anything.

“What this program shows is what a lasting impact you can have by doing something so small in the community. I just come here an hour a week, but I feel like this is one of the most productive and rewarding hours of my whole week,” Kenney said. “What I’m getting from the kids, just seeing them smile, laugh, and seeing them hit the ball and enjoying it, means so much to me and makes it all worthwhile.”

Kenney works with young, able-bodied tennis players on a daily basis, and this is his first experience working with children with autism.

“At first, I wasn’t sure how I was going to get across to them, but once I threw myself out there and started engaging with them, they were very receptive and I just started figuring it out as I went along,” he said.

Ricardel Bailey, who is also a pro at Sportsmen’s and BCLA alum (Class of 2013), made a special visit back to the school on Tuesday, May 24, for the first time since he graduated, to assist with the program. He and Kenney worked with students on fundamentals and played educational games, and within just a short time, he noticed significant development.

“Just seeing them progress for me is a thrill,” Bailey said. “Being able to pass down the knowledge to someone, and pass down something they find interesting and the fact that they find me interesting and want to engage with me is really what keeps me going.”

BCLA will run the tennis program through the end of the school year and plans to continue up again in next year.

By James Maimonis
Communications and Engagement Coordinator

Original article