Adaptive Tennis Spotlight: Growing the Game with Love Serving Autism

Scott Sode | June 25, 2023

If you need an example of how tennis can change lives, look no further than the effect Love Serving Autism has had on the many kids enrolled in its programming. The non-profit organization’s enthusiastic founder Lisa Pugliese-LaCroix—a certified speech language pathologist who has over 20 years of experience treating kids and adults with autism—can list off countless examples.


“One of our students was nonverbal when I met him through tennis about five years ago,” she recalls. “He was communicating with gestures by pointing and using communication visuals. I still work with him once a week, and he’s now verbal. He attends all our tennis events. His mom said that through the sport he's been able to make friends and improve his communication. It gave him more confidence.”


That’s not all. Just last month, he finished in the Top 8 in the country in a national geography bee.


“It just shows that you can never give up on someone who’s young, who has autism and maybe doesn’t have the language skills,” Pugliese-LaCroix says. “It doesn't mean that they never will. They could [develop those] someday, and [possibly] through tennis.”


Pugliese-LaCroix has long understood all the benefits the sport can offer. She first picked up a racquet at five years old and played competitively in college (at both Duke University and the University of Florida) and on the WTA circuit. After a back injury somewhat blunted her progress, she decided to take a little break from the rigors of the professional tour.


“I could have continued, I think, if that was really my passion,” she says now. “I felt like I didn't know. I was kind of questioning my career path at that point in my life.”

Around this time, her mother happened to read an article about speech language pathology. She thought the field might be a good fit for her daughter, who had majored in English and linguistics in college. Pugliese-LaCroix looked into it and ended up enrolling in a graduate program at nearby Florida Atlantic University. Quickly, she says, she found her calling.


“I realized how much I enjoyed helping others and not being so focused on myself,” she explains. “Growing up in tennis, it was all about my training and performance and results, and it was kind of nice to give back. I enjoyed it.”


In 2011, about ten years removed from her athletic career, Pugliese-LaCroix learned about the ACEing Autism organization, which, as its name indicates, helps bring tennis to kids with autism. It seemed like a perfect melding of two disciplines to which she had dedicated her life, and she offered to help expand the California-based operation’s programming to her home state of Florida. After serving as ACEing’s site director for six years, she endeavored to form a non-profit of her own so that she could better infuse the programming with her own approaches and ideas as a professional in the field.


“I just felt in my heart that there are not enough organizations to serve this population,” Pugliese-LaCroix says. “I think the statistics are that 1 in 36 children now are diagnosed by the age of eight in the United States. So I hoped it would be perceived as, ‘Okay, this is another program to help others.’”


Love Serving Autism’s astronomical growth in Florida more than underscores that point. The non-profit originated as one program at a charter school in 2017; Pugliese-LaCroix taught every class herself. Today it offers programming at 28 locations across the state and serves around 300 students. In addition to helping teach the fundamentals of the game, the organization hires speech, occupational, physical and behavioral therapists as independent contractors through grants to help participants improve their communication, coordination, motor and life skills.


Amid the expansion, Pugliese-LaCroix has begun taking the show on the road, helping other tennis providers around the country develop their own adaptive operations, including in New York and New Jersey. She has helped establish programming in East Brunswick, N.J., Summit, N.J., West Orange, N.J. and in Middle Village, Queens. Caitlin Kehoe, the recreation supervisor for the East Brunswick Department of Recreation, Parks and Community Services, leaned on Pugliese-LaCroix as she worked to get one such offering off the ground.

“In our initial meeting, Lisa took plenty of time to thoroughly discuss Love Serving Autism and the impact it has had on children with special needs,” Kehoe says. “I was incredibly shocked and grateful that she shared her curriculum, including specific documents, photos and banners to help us start our program, which we affectionately call Love Serving Daisy.”


Love Serving Daisy launched last fall with four participants; its most recent eight-week session included ten players. Given the demand, Kehoe expects that number to keep growing, and she’s very thankful for Pugliese-LaCroix’s support every step of the way.


“While we just started the program, we plan to continue to expand and make use of indoor locations [during the colder months],” she says. “Lisa has been wonderful to us. She's always reaching out and checking up on us to make sure everything is running smoothly and that we don't need any additional resources.”

In addition to her efforts to bolster adaptive programming in the area, Pugliese-LaCroix has also led in-person training sessions for many other tennis professionals in the USTA Eastern section, including in Guilderland, N.Y. and Watertown, N.Y., as well as with teachers in the New York City public schools. Through these efforts, she hopes to empower more people in the tennis world to serve a woefully underserved group.


“Whether it’s someone with the YMCA or a tennis director or a P.E. teacher, it’s about helping them realize that they are in fact capable of developing this programming,” she says. “It's not like you have to be a certified tennis professional. There are a lot of tools and resources available to create a successful experience for participants. I think that providers can be intimidated by the process. They don't think that they're adequate or equipped to do this. And after a training, many realize, ‘Okay, I think I could do this.’ So it’s very exciting to see. The hope is that maybe a handful of the people who attend these workshops will initiate something at some point in their career in adaptive tennis.”

Lisa Pugliese-LaCroix is the founder of the Love Serving Autism organization.

Of course, you don’t have to look very far to see the impact just one such program can make.


“Over the course of eight weeks, we've watched our athletes learn self-control, discipline, positivity and sportsmanship—and of course, the skills needed to play tennis,” Kehoe says. “The best part of running this program is ending a session with a reflection, which often leads to athletes sharing how proud they are of themselves and how much they love coming. Even more, one set of parents shared with me that their very shy child, who seemed to not be interested in much, would actually ask to come to tennis. The child would also encourage her mom to stay and watch! Seeing such a wonderful transformation both physically and mentally has made this so rewarding to run.”


The stories really are countless. Similar to Kehoe’s experience, Pugliese-LaCroix shares that mere weeks after the Middle Village offering got off the ground, an elated father sent her a message. His daughter struggled with several sensory challenges, and he wasn’t even sure if she would like tennis.


“She loves it,” Pugliese-LaCroix says. “She knows the calendar of tennis classes, and the family plans their whole day around it. It’s something that she really looks forward to. And she’s becoming more physically independent on court, more coordinated, more social, which is great. It’s so exciting to hear. And this is only after four weeks!”


Are you a tennis provider interested in implementing adaptive programming? We can help you get started. Contact USTA Eastern Diversity & Inclusion Director David Williams or Parks & Recreational Play Coordinator Kelsey Altavilla to learn more.



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