Shaw junior Ahkayla Washington stood 10 feet from the volleyball net and launched an arcing serve into the air.
A member of the other team from Smiths Station got into position and bumped the ball back. Washington watched intently as the return made its approach.
"Mine!" she shouted, clearing out the rest of her teammates.
This went on for about five minutes. All the while, a smile as bright as her personality was etched across Washington's face.
"To see her now in high school, playing volleyball with these other kids, you just don't know," Washington's mom, Sharon Jefferson, said. "It's amazing. To see her face light up when she comes home, telling me about the game. It's just amazing."
It's amazing to Jefferson because she knows the difficulties that Washington, who suffers from autism, has faced socially growing up.
"As a mother, I know what
she's had to go through to get to this point," she said.
Washington was diagnosed autistic when she was 3 years old. She wasn't talking, and she wasn't interacting with others like most other 3-year-olds would.
According to a the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, "Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life, and affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills."
Jefferson, who had never heard of autism at the time, had no idea what the right course of action was.
Should they see a specialist? Put her in special learning? See more doctors? Get a second opinion?
But the diagnosing doctor recommended something different: Treat her normally.
"He said he wanted to try something: Put her in school at the age of 3," Jefferson said. "He said he wanted to try her in a public school with normal kids.
"I didn't know how I felt about it at first, but he told me to just try it out."
She started speaking more. She started interacting with kids her age. And, as Jefferson found out, she was an incredibly intelligent girl.
"She was telling time by the time she was 4 years old," she said.
It was this, above all else, that convinced Jefferson to let her daughter get involved with volleyball. Perhaps this, like school, would be another avenue for her to socialize with girls her age.
Joining volleyball team
Lindsay Dunton, a learning specialist and the volleyball coach at Shaw, met Washington in her freshman year, when she had her in two of her classes. Sometimes, when Jefferson, a single mother, was at work, Washington would stay after school at the volleyball practices with Dunton.
Last season, in her sophomore year, Washington officially joined as the team's manager. But that wasn't enough for her.
"She wanted to do the drills with the team," Dunton said.
Soon, Washington was participating in everything during practice and being put into each junior varsity match for a handful of plays.
Dunton said it was a great opportunity, not just for her, both also for the other girls on the team as well.
"It helps (Washington) branch out and interact with a different group of kids than she is usually in class with. And she loves it," Dunton said. "And I think it teaches the girls something outside of sports. It helps their overall character."
Players on the team had similar things to say about playing with Washington.
"She gives us so much energy," said Talie Hammond, a junior who has known Washington since sixth grade. "She loves volleyball as much as we do, and she's always there when we need her."
"She adds her own flavor to our team," sophomore Lindsey Thomas said.
Thomas and Ebone Cobb said that she helped the team's focus because of her willingness to participate in all the drills they do. While they occasionally complained about some of the things they had to do, Washington insisted on participating when it was occasionally more difficult for her.
"It's such a blessing to have her out here," Cobb said. "She motivates us with her energy and willing to participate. We take for granted some of the things that come so easily to us, and her willingness to participate in everything puts things in perspective for us."
Jefferson points to a specific match from last season to demonstrate how far her daughter has come.
The team had a match in Atlanta, and the trip would last overnight. Washington, of course, wanted to go. Jefferson had never been away from her daughter overnight before, however.
Despite her reluctance, Jefferson allowed Washington to go, and was pleasantly surprised when her daughter returned the next day to tell her how much fun she had with the other girls.
"I just have to sit back sometimes and look at her from the time she was born when we didn't know what was wrong until now," Jefferson said.
"I just sit back and look at her sometimes. Sometimes, I just have to stare at her and say, 'This is my child. Look at her. Look at her now.'"
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571