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IMHO: Tennis Plays Role as Lebanon’s Campbell Confronts Autism

Tennis Plays Part as Lebanon’s Campbell Confronts Autism

  • Terran Campbell, left, takes of sip of water before beginning a doubles match with team mate Jacob Peress, right, during the championship round of the NHIAA Division II Boy’s Tennis Tournament against Oyster River High School in Bedford, N.H., on May 31, 2016. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Terran Campbell’s shadow falls on the court during the champsionship match of the NHIAA Division II Boy’s Tennis Tournament against Oyster River High School in Bedford, N.H., on May 31. 2016. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Terran Campbell prepares to return a hit while playing Portsmouth High School at CCBA’s Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, N.H., on May 26, 2016. (Valley News - Mac Snyder) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Sports Editor
Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Lebanon – To first see Terran Campbell, his father believes, is to not immediately grasp the level to which he has progressed.

The tennis whites he wears when he takes the court for Lebanon High School seem to engulf Campbell. A 16-year-old junior, Campbell sometimes walks with a stiff gait, elbows pressed to his sides, shoulders hunched upward. When he high-fives his Raider teammates during prematch introductions, he does so quickly before he returns to his place in the line.

Then he starts to play. Slowly, patiently, he receives each fuzzy yellow ball sent his way by an opponent and returns it. Back. Forth. Back. Forth. Again. And again. Each stroke nearly the same. Rarely a mistake. More often than not, Campbell wins his match because the other person falters first.

“I find it very easy to believe that it would be easy to underestimate Terran initially,” Douglas Campbell says, sitting on a couch in the family’s Lebanon home on a sultry Memorial Day, his son beside him. “You see the way he stands, the way he holds himself, and they think, ‘I can take this guy easy.’ What they don’t count on is the ball keeps coming back. Then they start overplanning and overhitting.”

“It’s funny sometimes to watch the other person shake hands in introductions with Terran and come back to his team like, ‘I’m going to beat this kid,’ then watch him walk off the court after Terran has won, 8-0,” says Lebanon junior Jacob Peress, Campbell’s doubles playing partner and longtime friend. “It’s a lot of fun to see. It’s kind of inspiring.”

Terran: “I just hit it back to them, mostly.”

What the other guys probably don’t know: Campbell is autistic.

He’s also a success story. And tennis is only a part of the narrative.

 

Terran Campbell has high functioning autism, a genetic condition formerly but more familiarly known as Asperger’s syndrome. According to the organization Autism Speaks (www.autismspeaks.org), children diagnosed with high functioning autism “have IQs that fall in the normal or even superior range. To many, they may seem just like other children but not quite: Children with AS are socially awkward in a manner that’s not easily understood.”

“It’s considered part of the autism spectrum, but it used to be thought of as a special case,” says Susan Johnson, Terran’s mother. “But because the autism spectrum is so varied anyway, everybody is sort of an individual on it. You can’t really predict before you meet somebody with Asperger’s what they’re going to be like. …

“It’s considered a social communication disorder. The myths about it are a lack of empathy or emotion, but that’s not true.”

Terran’s parents suspected something amiss not long after their son was born. They had testing done when he was 2, and diagnoses would gravitate toward a lack of physical development rather than social development.

“I remember clearly in day care, people would say, ‘We can’t get him to move; he just sits in the sandbox and does nothing,’ ” Douglas Campbell says. “People were very concerned. What I believe was going on was the world was a scary place. It was unfamiliar. It was disorganized and not knowable. And his best bet was to just observe.”

While engaging with the outside world may have been awkward, Terran proved to be a voracious reader. “We would read stacks of books a day,” his dad says, “but books can only take you so far.”

As Terran has gotten older, he’s had the help of Lebanon psychologist Steven Atkins to progress. Atkins has worked with the Lebanon School District for more than two decades and first began working with Terran when the youngster was in fourth grade.

“I have some very young patients now whose parents are very worried; they can’t sleep,” Atkins says. “For them to be able to read this and say, ‘If you catch it early, you treat it and start rewiring those neural pathways …’

“The more we practice, no matter what it is we practice, whether it be a musical instrument, an athletic activity, drawing … everything we do rewires our neural pathways. The sooner you start, the more malleable the brain is, you start enhancing these social cognitive skills.”

Games with defined rules and boundaries, ones that allow Campbell to rely on his own abilities, appeal most to him. Team sports leave too much to chance, require too many social interactions and can be overwhelming.

Chess worked. Douglas Campbell saw his son had an interest in and aptitude for it at a young age. “One day I showed him chess, when he was 6, and within three days, he had completely understood the whole mechanics and was reading books on it,” he recalled, “such that within the next three months, he was playing Dartmouth kids and beating them.”

“They didn’t realize I played chess,” Terran added.

“He beat me at chess; I never let any patients win, ever,” Atkins said. “The deal was if he beat me at chess, I’d buy him a pizza. And I don’t know how many times I’ve bought him a pizza.”

 

Reading about a thing helps Terran quickly process its nuances. The lesson was reinforced when, toward the end of sixth grade, Terran took his first serious swings with a tennis racket.

“I’d played tennis as a boy a little bit, but nothing particularly serious; no camp, no lessons, nothing,” Douglas said. “It was a big surprise that he seemed to have an aptitude for it. One day we were at the CCBA courts, and there looked to be something like a formal clinic or group going on. I asked Terran, ‘Do you mind if we go look and investigate?’ He didn’t much care for that idea, but it turned out to be the Lebanon High School girls team. Hank Doran was instructing, he invited us to play with them, and for the next couple of years, Terran was an honorary member of that group.”

Doran, who continues to work with Terran today, calls him “the most coachable kid I’ve had in 18 years of coaching.” Doran instructs Terran what to do, and his charge follows through. He loves the drills, engaging eagerly in even the most difficult ones.

Tennis appealed because it was predictable. The ball is either in or it’s out. It’s good, or it isn’t. Roll your wrist over for topspin; slice under the ball for backspin. Score four points, win the game. Take eight games, win the match.

“I gave him a book to read, called Mental Tennis; I gave it to him in seventh grade, and it had a lot of technical stuff in it,” Doran said. “He gave it back to me the next day and said he’d finished it. So I went to page 140, asked him a question and he answered it word for word.”

A friendship between Douglas Campbell and Billy Pontious led the latter to invite Terran to join the junior tennis program at Hanover’s Storrs Pond Recreation Area, where Pontious is tennis director. Within a couple of years, Terran was not only traveling with the team and competing in junior matches, he was also helping teach younger players at Pontious’ summer camps.

“He was very quiet and to himself in the beginning,” Pontious recalled last week. “His tennis abilities were kind of above-average for everyone else in the class. I worked a little more with him one-on-one, and he became more friendly and talkative. We would have tennis round robins and little junior matches, and I’d have Terran help keep score because he seemed to have a special talent for numbers. He was able to calculate percentages of wins and various statistics that were helpful.”

As his playing abilities improved, so did Campbell’s social skills. Atkins has endeavored to engage Terran through games and humor, but he also credits what the school district has done to help the Campbells as well.

“In the beginning, especially if you catch them very young, it was really difficult and very challenging just to engage on a level like this,” Atkins said. “In fact, we spent a good year almost not communicating whatsoever. So for you to understand how far things have come, this is a significant success story.”

Being in a team setting has also helped Terran gradually open up to the world.

Doubles partner Peress thinks back two springs. A freshman Campbell was paired in doubles with “a big senior soccer player, Jeff Purdy, and Purdy was a pretty social guy,” Peress said. “It took him eight or so matches to start talking with Purdy. He will talk with you when you know him. He doesn’t initiate conversation, but when you know him, he’s perfectly fine. It just takes a little while.”

Both Atkins and Douglas Campbell hope that, by telling Terran’s story, other families of autistic children will see there’s help and hope to be found.

“It really is about … taking the heat off of a lot of the things that a typical parent would really fret about,” Douglas Campbell said. “It’s the dressing, it’s the eating, it’s the sleep patterns, it’s the screen time. All these things that, I think, a lot of parents will naturally and normally get uptight about: ‘Why is my child being so difficult around these issues?’

“We just really had to say that’s not our biggest problem right now. Our biggest problem is him feeling comfortable enough to be himself.”

That Terran allowed a stranger to write a newspaper story about him tells you all you need to know about how far he’s come.

 

Dad warned that his son might not make eye contact when addressed, yet Terran usually does when asked a question. When his parents talk, he leans into a friendly lap or reaches out for Simba, the family’s little-bit-of-everything dog. Terran speaks clearly but in a soft voice; he’s more likely to answer when queried about a technical aspect of tennis than if he’s asked something that may be personally revealing.

“I think I was good at forehands, mostly, and lobs (as a freshman),” Terran said of his playing abilities. “My serve and backhand are still not good. I think that’s been the same for all three years.”

Terran Campbell’s world continues to expand. He has a job at a local grocery store. He’ll spend six weeks this summer taking classes at St. Paul’s School in Concord.

“This guy right here is phenomenally bright,” Atkins said. “I’m sure we’ll be preparing him either for a valedictorian or salutatorian speech next year at the high school.”

Peress: “No matter when I’ve known him, he’s been incredibly smart, one of the smartest kids in our grade despite being one of the youngest kids in the grade. He’s probably top 10 in the class.”

And he’ll have another spring to play near the top of the Lebanon boys tennis ladder. He swept to wins in his three postseason singles matches and teamed up with Peress for the clinching point in the 5-2 semifinal defeat of Portsmouth on May 28 at the Carter Community Building Association courts.

Peress remains energized by his playing partner’s singles win that day. Down 3-0 to Jack DiPietro, who overturned a 7-4 deficit to beat Campbell in last year’s D-II state final, and hearing the exhortations of other Portsmouth players outside the court, Campbell rallied for an 8-6 victory.

“That was, to me, the match of the season,” Peress says. “I thought he would win, but to show that mental toughness is inspiring.”

On Memorial Day, about 24 hours before Lebanon High would win the school’s first NHIAA Division II boys tennis championship, Terran Campbell listens to a stranger describe his patient approach to playing tennis. He’ll win his singles match in the finals win over Oyster River and contribute to the team’s success by again executing a patient game plan against another foe who doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into.

“I’m glad that Terran is starting to develop a repertoire that’s beyond the defensive, because he is starting to have shots he can actually execute,” Douglas Campbell says. “That’s certainly the path that he’s been on.”

His son interjects: “And that’s what Jacob’s going to do tomorrow.”

Terran Campbell looks away as he says this, and there’s a smile on his face as he does.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.