January 18, 2019

Ben Schwartzman: Giving autistic kids a shot at a team sport

In early 2014, UCLA post-graduate education student Ben Schwartzman and his classmate and friend John Daniel were staring at their computer screens and robotically crunching numbers on Microsoft Excel when they both decided they needed a change.
“We were just looking at data on our computers and hating our lives,” Schwartzman said, laughing. “We were like, ‘We should do something fun.’ ”
Schwartzman, who’s pursuing a doctorate that will prepare him for a career working with autistic children, wanted to funnel his training and passion into action.
“Why don’t we just make a basketball league? That’d be so fun,” Schwartzman recalls saying to Daniel. 
One year later, Schwartzman and Daniel are preparing for their second season of High Five Basketball, a summer youth basketball league for children and teens on the autism spectrum. Open to ages 6 to 15, High Five Basketball offers autistic kids three things that everyone can use more of but that may be harder for some autistic children to find — friendships, physical exercise and a sense of belonging.
Last summer, High Five Basketball ran on Sundays from July 13 to Aug. 31 at Crossroads School in Santa Monica and Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino. Fifty-five kids signed up (Schwartzman collected names at an annual autism walk at the Rose Bowl last April), and High Five Basketball has received some outside financial support that allows Schwartzman, Daniel and the two other staffers to keep enrollment costs low — only $50 for the upcoming season.
Empower Sports, a 501(c)3 that creates sports leagues for children with special needs and kids living in poverty, agreed to bring High Five Basketball under its insurance plan — at no cost to High Five Basketball. A uniform manufacturer in Ohio gave Schwartzman a discount. And Jewcer, a crowd-funding platform that helps turn ideas into projects that can benefit the Jewish community, awarded High Five Basketball a $7,500 grant, which will go a long way toward funding the group’s main costs — gym fees and jerseys.
Schwartzman said he hopes the upcoming season will begin in May, but that also revolves around his and Daniel’s academic schedules (they are still full-time students). Schwartzman isn’t sure what his role will be with High Five Basketball after he graduates — he said there are many other projects he hopes to work on. But as an avid basketball fan (Lakers) and a recreational player, the opportunity to play and teach the game he loves to the people he wants to help has been a treasure.
“The actual game days were awesome,” Schwartzman said, adding that wins and losses aren’t counted, and the performance on the court is not taken as seriously as it may be in typical youth sports leagues. 
For Schwartzman, a career in autism has a very personal angle. His older brother, Joey, was diagnosed with autism in the late 1990s (the Journal did a story on him in 2001 titled “Torah Lover Beats Odds”), which prompted Ben to take an introductory course on autism when he was an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara. That, Schwartzman said, is what started him thinking that a career in the autism field could be his path.
Schwartzman said that giving autistic kids a chance for rigorous physical exercise is known to help them improve executive functioning (which includes reasoning, problem solving and planning) — things that are often difficult for people without autism, and seemingly insurmountable for many with. He hopes the league also will help the kids become more involved in sports games during recess at school.
“A lot of the parents come up to me and say, ‘I had no idea that he could play basketball. I wouldn’t have known unless you guys did this league,’ ” Schwartzman said.