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Washingtonians of the Year 2012: Jason Lerner

Seeking autism remedies on the tennis court.

Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

Jason Lerner’s life story is short—he wasn’t even born till 1995. His older brother, Zack, who has an autism-spectrum disorder, attended treatment-focused boarding schools during much of Jason’s childhood. When Zack was home, their parents encouraged him to exercise—it improved his behavior—and Jason walked to the park with him to hit tennis balls. Sometimes Zack’s friends joined in, and 12-year-old Jason ended up running informal practices for a group of kids years older.

When the family moved to McLean and Jason started high school, he began teaching lessons. During his sophomore year at the Potomac School, he started a club, YouToo Tennis, to provide free instruction to kids with autism and their siblings. He made a flyer and asked the Autism Society of Northern Virginia for help with outreach—and ultimately insurance. He borrowed racquets from McLean Racquet & Health Club for kids who didn’t have them.

In a year and a half, YouToo Tennis has taught dozens of boys and girls basic skills and provided focused attention, physical activity, and the kids’ favorite: shiny trophies.

“A lot of sports, particularly the team ones where everyone gets a trophy, don’t work well for kids on the spectrum,” Jason says. “But tennis is one-on-one—everyone’s supposed to improve at their own pace.”

Jason plans to study developmental neuroscience in college—and possibly economics. The relationship is obvious to him: “Maybe there’s something to be done for these kids besides making them drug-dependent. Treatment isn’t just hard—it’s expensive. Exercise could be just one of many better, cheaper alternatives.”

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