Two things have been consistent throughout much of Emily Werman’s life: autism spectrum disorder and tennis.
“I was born into a tennis-playing family, so I was introduced to the sport at an early age,” says the 25-year-old from Chicago, who was diagnosed with autism at age 12. “By that time, I was already playing competitive junior tennis.”
These two factors came together to lead Werman to her life’s vocation. As a student at The Help Group – a comprehensive nonprofit serving children, adolescents and young adults with autism spectrum disorder and other special needs – she learned of a tennis program called ACEing Autism and jumped at the chance to get involved. She volunteered in The Help Group’s ACEing Autism after-school tennis program at its Sherman Oaks Campus. Now, with a degree in disability studies from Cal Lutheran University, she teaches at The Help Group and is an ACEing Autism program director. “Teaching at The Help Group has had a profound impact on my life,” she says. “When I was a student there, people believed in me and worked tirelessly to help me reach my potential. Now I have the opportunity to do the same for others.”
Werman is now able to combine her professional goals and personal passions. “As long as I can remember, my professional goal has been to work in special education helping children with disabilities overcome challenges and reach their potential,” she says. “What makes it especially rewarding is having the opportunity to use my own challenges and experiences to connect to these special kids in a unique way. It makes me proud to be a volunteer in the ACEing Autism program and see the kids succeed on the court; whether it is bouncing the ball on the ground, on their racquet or hitting groundstrokes.”
Meanwhile, Werman is helping her students develop social skills, learn to follow directions and understand the value of teamwork both in the classroom and on the court. She’s also excited to see them develop motor skills and improve balance and coordination – as well as their social, emotional and communication skills. Throughout her teaching, she shares her philosophy of “progress not perfection.” “I truly believe you learn from your mistakes and become a stronger person if you recognize that you’re always a winner if you keep trying, even in the face of failure or frustration,” she says.
Werman herself is a winner in one more respect. This past summer, she won the national ACEing Autism Essay Competition and a trip to the U.S. Open. In her answer to the question “What impact has ACEing Autism had on your life?” her essay described how the program allowed her to combine her passion for tennis with her commitment to the special-needs community, and also shared some of the challenges she faced as a person growing up with autism spectrum disorder.
“You know deep inside that you’re different and it’s hard to ‘fit in,’” she says. “Although this can be quite painful at times, I wanted others in similar circumstances to know that being different is OK and good things can come from adversity.” In fact, she credits her personal journey with helping her define her interests and abilities and leading to her career as a special-education teacher. “Rather than being defined by my disability, I discovered a way to use my personal experiences to help kids with autism spectrum disorder and other challenges,” she says.
On her trip to the US Open she had the chance to meet top tennis players, sports-television personalities and others connected with ACEing Autism. She also helped run the ACEing Autism clinic at Flushing Meadows, NY, and managed to sample New York-style pizza and see “Frozen” on Broadway. “Both were fantastic!” says Werman.
Werman has been accepted to the Preliminary Education Specialist Credential program at Cal Lutheran and plans to pursue a master’s degree in education. She says that, as a person with autism spectrum disorder, she has faced struggles, and that having tennis in her life has been “a life saver,” helping her develop self-confidence and improve her social and emotional skills. She advises parents of young people with autism to stay hopeful and to pay special attention to transition planning. “There is no roadmap for a special-needs child and life beyond high school gets increasingly difficult,” she says, “so early preparation is critical.”
She urges parents to do what they can to get a comprehensive evaluation to identify their child’s issues. Then the parents can work toward developing a team of professionals to provide appropriate services to help their child reach his or her potential. This team could include a variety of professionals including a psychiatrist, developmental pediatrician, internist, psychologist, occupational therapist, speech and language pathologist, behavioral therapist, classroom teacher, trained respite care giver, Regional Center case manager or another service provider. As a child matures, their needs may change and the team of individuals helping them should change as well.
She recommends that young people on the autism spectrum seek out and pursue their own special interests. “Everyone has something they enjoy and are capable of doing,” she says. “My suggestion is to find that thing and run with it.”