Right on court

Autism Spectrum Disorder doesn't keep Luke Ledebur from playing tennis well

Luke Ledebur’s Autism Spectrum Disorder doesn’t hinder him when he’s on the court, it allows him to tune out everything except hitting the ball.

Between the white lines, his mind doesn’t consult his body.

Heat and court-cutting and racket-swinging in mechanical motion undermine the legs, the arms, and pummel the lungs. But Luke Ledebur doesn’t know it. It’s a blessing buried in the disorder.

Things that were supposed to hinder Ledebur have sifted to the surface. They’re nuggets of talent. He’s not aware of the pain. Not until after a match. The 18-year-old can focus like a top-flight fly fisherman on a rain-shaken pond.

And they call it a disorder.

In some respects, like reading nonverbal conversation cues and awareness of his demeanor and countenance, Ledebur’s Autism Spectrum Disorder does impair.

In others — focus, unawareness of pain, assembly-line repetition — ASD provides some top-shelf athletic tools.

They’ve proved pivotal to his tennis excellence.

“He’s one of those kids,” said Luke’s mother, Karen, “if you want him to hit forehands for an hour, he will.”

The Grand Junction High School graduate will string dozens of them together in a point of tennis like Christmas popcorn and cranberries on a strand. He did it this week at the Taco Bell Western Slope Open at the Elliott Tennis Center.

Ledebur won the 18 boys singles division title with a 6-1, 6-2 win over Drake Giese. Afterward, he spoke of being down 2-0 in the second set. How for a moment, consistency was broken. Long ago, he may have snapped mentally as well. Even during his first few seasons at Grand Junction, a then-mercurial Luke Ledebur may have begun to sputter and spray shots.

This time he reset. Then reeled off six straight games to win the match. Maybe because a foundation of self-belief had been spread.

Karen Ledebur said when Luke was diagnosed with ASD at 5 years old, a child psychiatrist told her Luke would never compete in team sports. “And autistic people tend not to be athletic,” Karen said.

Nevertheless, one year later, Luke’s father, Mark, began hitting balls to Luke. That’s when the social anxiety was most suffocating. And the silence and shyness latched to Luke throughout Messiah Lutheran School, Karen said.

“I was real quiet,” Luke said, mellow but assured. “I wasn’t aware of how I handled things.”

One stage at a time, from swatting balls to learning the sport’s mental aspects, he transformed: as his game improved, the shy teenager gained social confidence. This was not a form of autism depicted by Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbitt in the movie “Rain Man.”

In recent years, autism has typically been linked by the words “spectrum disorder.”

Luke Ledebur is on the mild section of the spectrum, said Dr. Patrice Whistler, Ledebur’s pediatrician for about seven years.

Whistler said doctors used to generally believe neurons were done developing at 14-16 years of age.

“We now know (neurons) are going to keep making pathways in the mid-to-late 20s,” Whistler said. “Luke was gifted to be able to have a milder form of the autism spectrum and still has overcome a great disability in the social world.”

Those with ASD shouldn’t avoid team sports, Whistler said. Instead, they should push their limits.

“Luke has worked really hard at training his brain to reach up to a higher level of functioning,” she said.

Redlands Middle School has effective classes for ASD students, Whistler said, where students work with iPads that include communication-honing applications.

Ledebur did not benefit from such technology. Yet he works at Carpetime with his father and will attend Colorado Mesa University this fall on an athletic scholarship, thanks to his tennis skills.

He won a regional title at No. 2 singles his senior season and placed fifth in the Class 5A state tournament.

Beginning Aug. 3 in Lakewood, Luke will play in a USTA 18s Summer Sizzler intermountain sectional.

“Any curse can be a blessing,” Karen said.

This week at the Taco Bell tournament, Ledebur also played in the 18 mixed doubles division with Aimee Basinski, a two-time regional champion at Central High School. They made it to the title match.

As a team.

“Don’t let people bring you down with what they say,” Ledebur said. “They’re not always right.”


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