See more of the story

Ten-year-old Kusa Xiong has looked out for his big sister for as long as he can remember.

At school, he helps her unpack her things at her locker. At home, the siblings read together, make up games and practice counting.

Kusa said 12-year-old Pahnuly, who has autism, inspires him to think differently. It was because of her, after all, that inspiration struck the kid inventor one day at home in Brooklyn Park while the family played pingpong — a sport Pahnuly struggled with. Kusa wanted to find a way to make pingpong more suited to his sister’s needs.

Before long, the fifth-grader had dreamed up a winning idea that’s attracting national attention and is now being manufactured for sale by a toy company.

The new game hangs a pingpong ball from a vertical frame, with players volleying the ball back and forth. It’s modified table tennis without the fuss of errant ball chasing.

The family said Kusa’s creation — dubbed “Aeropong” because the ball seems to float on air — has bolstered Pahnuly’s hand-eye coordination and given the pair a new activity to bond over. Kusa said the game is meant to make people smile, especially his big sister.

“When she scores,” he said, “she dances.”

Play can be an especially powerful tool for kids with autism and their siblings, said Jennifer Reinke, a therapist at the Autism Society of Minnesota.

It provides a natural setting, Reinke said, for building skills like cooperation, turn-taking and empathy: “The social interactions make play very important.”

Families of children with autism often get creative, modifying existing games or toys so they can be used in a way that works best, Reinke said. That may be as simple as adding a timer to a game to help with turn-taking or simplifying a toy by ditching the batteries if features like sounds become too distracting.

About one in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For Kusa, an unassuming plan to give Pahnuly a chance to enjoy pingpong has led to unexpected accolades. Kusa’s idea recently won a national toy contest, complete with a $2,500 scholarship, future royalties on every unit sold and a trip to New York City this month to see his game promoted at a big-league toy fair.

“We never planned for this,” said Long Xiong, Kusa’s dad. “My son just wants my daughter to have fun, too.”

‘Simple genius’

The idea came to Kusa in the summer of 2016 as he took stock of Pahnuly’s frustrations with pingpong.

He wanted to help her practice hitting. So Kusa asked his dad to help him hang a pingpong ball from a door frame in the house.

At first, Pahnuly didn’t show much interest. But soon, Kusa heard a sound coming from the front room.

Clack. Clack. Clack.

Pahnuly had picked up a paddle and was tapping the suspended ball. Then, she started hitting it back and forth with Kusa and their dad.

Eventually, the family took a trip to Menards to buy some PVC pipe and fashioned a portable, vertical frame for the ball to hang from. They devised rules and ways to score points. If a player fails to return the ball through the vertical bars, the other person scores.

Word soon spread at school about Kusa’s creation during a science unit last school year on inventors and inventions. Kristin Stasica, who has taught Kusa for two years at Champlin-Brooklyn Park Academy for Math and Environmental Sciences, asked him to share about Aeropong.

The topic helped quiet Kusa find his voice, Stasica said. He can rattle off the game’s rules and perks by heart.

“He lit up because it’s completely his passion and his family’s passion,” she said. “It was probably the most he had talked consecutively.”

Kusa’s concept has what Mark Carson, co-founder of Fat Brain Toys, calls “simple genius.”

Carson’s Nebraska-based educational toy and game company put on the contest that Kusa entered. His winning idea was chosen from among 160 entries.

“It’s very easy for us to get, and we think kids could very easily understand why that would be fun,” Carson said.

On his upcoming trip to the toy fair in New York City, Kusa will see his invention demonstrated and pitched to major toy stores from around the country. The hope is that the game will be available for purchase in time for the holiday season, Carson said.

Family bonds

Aeropong has become nothing short of a family affair in Kusa’s house. Mom, Dad and kids all sport matching T-shirts emblazoned with the game’s name.

They’ve come to savor an evening ritual of picking up paddles to play. Pahnuly thrives on routine, her parents said. Her paddle is cat-themed, an ode to her favorite animal.

On a recent evening, Pahnuly padded around the hardwood floor at home, wearing socks with cats on them. She carried her stuffed Siamese toy, a feline she named “Obama.”

When the time came to play Aeropong, Kusa gently helped Pahnuly get in position. “Don’t stand too far away,” he reminded her.

Pahnuly’s face, framed by thick bangs, was serious. She kept her feet planted, flicking her paddle to strike the ball each time that her brother swatted it her way.

The family has made YouTube videos to capture these kinds of moments and kindle broader interest in the game. Pahnuly watches the online clips nearly every day. On this night, she clutched her toy cat as a video played on a computer screen in the living room. The clip ends with Pahnuly jumping up and down, celebrating an Aeropong victory against her dad. She waves her pink cat paddle in the air.

Photos on the wall nearby preserve memories of the siblings together. Long Xiong said he often reminds Kusa that he always needs to be there for his sister. “I told him that’s one of the biggest jobs he can do,” he said.

For now, Kusa dreams of becoming a “creator and businessman.” He said his big sister has already sparked ideas for other inventions.

“Most products are created by accident,” Kusa said. “But there has to be a reason Aeropong came to us.”

Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751