One day, I was sitting on the large green patch behind the tennis wall practice area (a comfortable 1,500-square-foot area), splendidly encased by tall trees that reached for the clouds. While I was absorbing the quiet infinity of the sky, inhaling the pristine stillness away from the busy, noisy and cluttered life of Delhi, my mind travelled back in time to the beginning of the arduous journey of teaching Noel the elements of the artful game of tennis.

“Noel! Left foot forward. Bend a little. Now, look at the ball. Do not take your eyes off it! Swing the racquet, hit it back! Keep the racquet straight, face it forward. No, n – yes, like that. Now, swing it hard, show me a power shot. Come on, go for it, move it, man, move it! Concentrate, you have to focus, focus! That’s it, the forehand, yes, a strong shot. Now backhand! You’ve got it! Excellent, proud of yo – no, don’t look away; ah, you’ve missed the ball, you’ve missed the ball!”

And then, inevitably, “You’re not paying attention. Stop dreaming, Noel!”

Noel’s equation with the sphere of sports was so very different compared to mine – a thought that nagged me all the time. He did not have the freedom to choose any game. There were constraints when it came to choosing one for him. I was his self-appointed trainer and settled on focusing on non-team games for Noel; namely, tennis, cycling, and roller skating (besides his consistent pursuit of swimming). Squash and carom got added along the way.

I had been training him for 15 years. Within the spectrum of various shots that the boy had accomplished with amazing perseverance, the backhand returns deserve special mention. However, could Noel play the game as most boys do after so many years of coaching? The answer was a big no. The first thing I had to teach myself to reconsider the notion of time periods that a child like Noel would take to learn and practice. So, 15 years in the time scale would not be the same as it would be for a neurotypical person.

Comparisons would have been grossly misplaced, I know. However, in the initial years, I was instantly caught in the harrowing turbulence of comparing Noel with other boys and girls his age that came to play. My persistent worry was that it was an enormous loss of time to learn to play. Why was he unable to progress like every other kid? This thought ate away at me anytime I stepped into the play area. There was such a difference in his disposition, motivation to learn, and in the understanding of others. It took me nearly five years to completely get rid of the urge to compare and the unbearable pain it caused me.

I always say reconciliation is a self-taught skill and that a dialogue with the self, furiously constructive, is the essence of bringing about change from within. Following a whole-hearted and gracious acceptance of Noel the way he was, the path forward became truly unstoppable. It released, perhaps, some new kind of chemicals in my physiology and a freshly positive energy appeared to have replaced that dreadful overflowing frustration.

I was able to reach a state of bliss when I was with Noel on the tennis courts. The duty-bound, committed, yet inwardly frustrated dad became a helplessly dependent one, turning to Noel for an injection of calm and elevation of the spirit. It was an intangible change ostensibly, but a sea of change within. My son became the provider of comfort and relaxation at the end of a miserable day. When I was in a logjam with office politics or in financial upheaval, the person for me to run to was my boy, Noel. Surprisingly, the impact that emanated from the tennis wall practice began to radiate in every sphere of my life. Such was the power of acceptance.

The transition then to the next level of what I call supreme joy was easy and took an unbelievably short time. I must mention that I had had this vision that I would make Noel a good tennis player when we had started out. Nonetheless, if you re-imagine the yardstick to measure success, then Noel truly attained it. Gradually, he had overcome his distractibility, his penchant for non-stop self-talk, or his desire to spontaneously break into songs.

Admittedly, some elements of that vision could not be realised – he still required me to escort him to his tennis practice. He could never be in practice all by himself. This was around the same time that I had resolved that I would be able to coach him to break free of those heavy chains holding him back – his constantly wavering concentration and abrupt bursts of disinterest, that persistent wobble in his legs as he ran, his poor hand-eye coordination, his inconsistent strength, his speed of visual processing and so on. I had to learn about his physical and motor difficulties precisely by observing him, noting every detail and then formulating methods to leverage his relatively strong points amidst the plethora of deficits.

His difficulty also lay in comprehending the rules of the game – the scores, the concept of winning and losing, boundaries, the singles and doubles side-lines – even though the rules were laid out in a visually clear and structure-friendly way; for the boy, the meanings remained complex. So, here was a new lesson: everything that is structure-oriented may not always work because symbolic meanings were not always relatable.

The mountainous barrier that had to do with Noel’s motivation also had to be overcome. A lack of interest in wanting to learn and the usually typical joy of figuring out a new trick or skill appeared to be almost absent. Then, how did I start?