Making Sports and Dance Fit for All Kids Conference highlights sports and dance program for children with developmental disabilities

October 30, 2019

In April 2019, Drs. Rujuta Wilson and Shafali Jeste of UCLA CART, in partnership with Professor Nicole Rinehart of Deakin University, hosted the “Making Sports and Dance Fit for All Kids” Conference weekend, highlighting the importance of creating inclusive environments for children with developmental disabilities in organized sports, dance, and physical activities. Made possible by a generous contribution from Moose Toys, the weekend commenced with a community outreach Conference, held at UCLA’s Carnesale Commons on Friday, April 26th, and culminated with the ACEing Autism/AllPlay Tennis Launch, held at UCLA’s Sunset Canyon Recreation Center on Saturday, April 27th.

Day 1: Making Sports and Dance Fit for All Kids Conference

Conference co-host, Dr. Rujuta Wilson gives keynote presentation about ‘Why Motor Skills Matter in Neurodevelopmental Disorders’.

Conference co-host, Dr. Shafali Jeste moderates the ‘Ask the Expert’ Panel Discussion.

The Conference created a forum to discuss the importance of bringing research, sport, dance, and education together so that kids of all abilities can participate. The morning portion of the two-part Conference featured keynote presentations addressing the science and social benefits of organized physical activity for children with developmental challenges. Speakers included Dr. Rujuta Wilson, leader of the motor phenotyping core at UCLA CART; Prof. Nicole Rinehart, founder of the AllPlay initiative and Director of the Deakin Child Study Center at Deakin University; and Dr. Chris Giza, Director of the UCLA BrainSPORT Program.

Additional highlights included an ‘Ask the Expert’ panel discussion led by Dr. Shafali Jeste and an audience Q&A with representatives of leading adaptive sports organizations, including ACEing Autism, TEAM PRIME TIME, New York City Ballet, The Help Group and LAUSD’s Adaptive Physical Education program.

The afternoon portion of the Conference brought together UCLA CART and BrainSPORT faculty, Deakin University faculty, experts in the fields of sports education and sports medicine, and representatives of local and international adaptive sports organizations for a discussion on next steps in further improving health literacy and physical activity engagement in children with developmental challenges. The product of these discussions is being translated into a policy paper to advocate for increased access to organized adaptive sports and dance programs.

Day 2: ACEing Autism/AllPlay Tennis Launch

UCLA CART volunteers, Mikaela Mizuno (left) and Armine Chamichyan (right) coaching at the ACEing Autism/AllPlay Tennis Launch.

(L-R): Prof. David Austin (Associate Dean, Faculty of Health, Deakin University); Dr. Rujuta Wilson (UCLA CART); Prof. Nicole Rinehart (AllPlay Founder; Director of Deakin Child Study Centre); Pam Shriver (Tennis Hall of Famer and ACEing Autism Ambassador); Rebecca Manlinguis and Mallory Van Laeken (Moose Toys).

Conference Weekend Event Coordinator and UCLA CART Research Associate, Tabitha Safari working one-on-one with a Tennis Launch participant.

On the second day of the “Making Sports and Dance Fit for All Kids” weekend, the ACEing Autism tennis organization joined forces with UCLA CART, Deakin University's AllPlay program, and Moose Toys to launch a free, one-day tennis program as part of their initiative to provide play-based physical activity programs to as many children with autism as possible. “This collaboration [between ACEing Autism, UCLA CART, AllPlay, and Moose Toys] is an important step towards further validating the effectiveness of utilizing sport, or in our case, tennis, as an early intervention to achieve social and developmental benefits for children with autism,” said ACEing Autism Founder and Executive Director, Richard Spurling.

Local families and their children were invited to participate in the one-hour tennis session where they were introduced to the activities, skills, and drills involved in playing tennis. ACEing Autism Founder and Executive Director, Richard Spurling, and Director of Program Operations, Justin Belisario acted as the head coaches while 16 UCLA CART staff members and volunteers, five additional ACEing Autism staff members, six Deakin University faculty, and a number of volunteers from Moose Toys joined the kids on the tennis courts (2:1 volunteer to child ratio) to provide guidance, encouragement, and behavioral support throughout the session.

Tennis Grand Slam Champions and ACEing Autism Ambassadors, Pam Shriver and Vania King also made appearances on the court, working alongside each child on various tennis exercises and activities. Both Pam and Vania expressed great pride in being a part of such a far-reaching, family-centered event. Watch the video here. “It’s a great day and it’s really good for the parents to see their children be able to interact with the tennis ball, with the instructor, with other’s like a tennis court once again becomes a unifier,” said Pam Shriver.

The impact of sports in a child’s life can be a confidence builder and impactful to development. “My goal one day is to be able to write on a prescription pad to a family and say, ‘here is your prescription for tennis’ and they know where to go and how to get that for their child” said Conference co-host Dr. Rujuta Wilson.

“Our team was privileged to talk with parents about ‘what they never thought their child could achieve’ and about the building of confidence and positive emotions shared with them as their child participated in the ACEing Autism program, said ACEing Autism Director of Program Operations, Justin Belisario.

UCLA CART and Deakin University’s world-class team of researchers and clinicians will continue to work together to make inclusion a reality for all kids and bring us closer to a world where the playing field is truly equal.

Conference Follow-Ups and Updates:

On July 3, 2019, Dr. Rujuta Wilson from UCLA CART and Prof. Nicole Rinehart from Deakin University visited the Moose Toys US Office in Los Angeles to discuss the next steps on their collaboration and talk to the Moose Toys staff about ASD, and the work being done at CART.

The UCLA CART and Deakin University research teams are currently in the process of developing a policy paper to influence the way in which participation in sports and dance is prescribed globally.

This fall, UCLA CART is launching an adaptive dance program for children with developmental disabilities called the Expressive Movement Initiative (EMI). The board of advisors include Emily Coker (Founder of EMI and third year medical student at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine) and Dr. Rujuta Wilson. Classes will be held every Wednesday afternoon from October 2nd to December 5th. For more information about registration, volunteering opportunities, or getting involved, please see the EMI Flyer on the next page, visit the EMI website, or contact