Catching Up with Lisa Pugliese-LaCroix and Love Serving Autism
Friday, April 2, is World Autism Awareness Day, which kicks off World Autism Month. The Autism Society of America launched this observance month to “promote autism awareness, inclusion and self-determination for all, and assure that each person with ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] is provided the opportunity to achieve the highest possible quality of life.”
Fulfilling that mission every day is Love Serving Autism, based in South Florida. LSA was founded by Lisa Pugliese-LaCroix in 2017, and both the nonprofit organization and its founder have been honored for what they do to make a difference in the lives of children and adults with special needs.
Pugliese-LaCroix is a speech-language pathologist in the field of autism and special needs, and for 18 years she specialized in the evaluation and treatment of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. But she’s also a USPTA and PTR Elite Certified Professional (she was a top-ranked junior in Florida and nationally, and played tennis at Duke University and the University of Florida).
Following her collegiate career, she was sidelined from WTA tournaments due to a back injury. During her time off, she began to envision making a difference in the sport of tennis.
After working with children for six years as a Florida program director for ACEing Autism, Pugliese-LaCroix was inspired to develop her own nonprofit, from the viewpoint and perspective of a speech-language pathologist. Now, merging her two passions, Love Serving Autism provides a therapeutic experience for adaptive athletes on the tennis court with an adaptive tennis pathway, integrating speech, occupational, physical and behavioral therapists into the programs.
In 2018, Pugliese-LaCroix received the USTA Florida Outstanding Diversity Achievement Award and was selected as the Adaptive Tennis Champion of the Year by Racquet Sports Industry Magazine. She also was selected by USPTA Florida and USPTA National for the STAR Award. Pugliese-LaCroix says her proudest moment as a coach was in 2019 when she ran onto Stadium Court 17 at the US Open with 21 Love Serving Autism children from Florida for a USTA Net Generation On-Court Experience. Her organization raised $28,000 for the families to fly to New York to participate in the event.
In 2020, Love Serving Autism was selected as an adaptive tennis partner with USTA Florida and began opening additional programs in the state, designed to reach 800 children and adults with special needs through tennis by 2024. Plans for 2021-2022 include LSA tennis programs in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and Illinois.
On the eve of World Autism Awareness Day, USTA.com caught up with Pugliese-LaCroix to find out more about Love Serving Autism and her goals for the future.
Q: What is the mission of Love Serving Autism?
Pugliese-LaCroix: Love Serving Autism’s mission is to expand life skills, especially functional communication, through specialized therapeutic tennis instruction to increase community inclusion and independence for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and developmental challenges. Our goal is for participants to apply these newly learned skills throughout the community, including in school, in the workplace, in social/recreational gatherings and in home settings. For tennis coaching professionals, we provide education and training for an adaptive tennis specialization in the industry.
Our vision is to better serve individuals with ASD and developmental challenges to promote self-love and functional independence within the community, as well as to promote inclusive opportunities for children and adults with special needs.
Q: How many children and adults with ASD do you serve?
Pugliese-LaCroix: Currently, we serve about 250 children and adults in South Florida. LSA organizes special community-based tennis clinics during ATP and WTA tournaments (Delray Open, Miami Open, US Open). The young adults volunteer annually as tournament greeters for the Delray Beach Open.
Q: What are some challenges you’ve encountered working with children and adults with autism, and what are some best practices for assisting with these challenges?
Pugliese-LaCroix: There are a number of challenges, but with our experience, professionalism and passion for what we do, we feel we meet the needs of these athletes. For instance, for most of those we work with, tennis is a new sport with a new routine. One thing we’ve found helpful is to create a visual schedule to assist with following this new routine.
Communication often is a challenge; 40 percent of our program participants are non-verbal or minimally verbal, so we’ve designed communication visuals and integrated assistive communication technology into our tennis classes.
Also, behaviors may fluctuate week to week, depending on specific triggers. LSA incorporates a multi-disciplinary approach by inviting speech, occupational, physical and behavior clinical students and certified therapists to our programs.
Another challenge we often face involves motor planning skills. Children and adults with autism may experience challenges with coordination and movement, so we’ve designed an on-court obstacle course that teaches repetitive movement patterns.
Q: How has COVID impacted your organization, and what have you done to adapt?
Pugliese-LaCroix: In March 2020, Love Serving Autism’s in-person tennis classes in 14 Florida locations were postponed due to the COVID pandemic, so we created a virtual tennis program on Zoom for the adaptive tennis athletes. The weekly classes, which currently continue as the organization re-opens its in-person locations, teach fitness, hand-eye coordination and social skills for children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders and developmental disabilities. LSA scheduled a special virtual XGLOsive Glow-In-The Dark tennis event on Zoom for families in April 2020 for Autism Awareness Month. We also partnered with the American Tennis Association in 2020 to promote diversity and inclusion in the tennis industry.
Q: What is the current focus and future plans for the organization?
Pugliese-LaCroix: As of March 2021, we’ve reopened 14 Love Serving Autism locations in Florida, and we’ll continue our weekly virtual tennis classes through this spring, in a hybrid operating model. A big goal for Love Serving Autism is to open an inclusive therapeutic tennis and recreational facility in South Florida, teaching tennis to both neurotypical and adaptive athletes and offering therapies to children and adults with special needs. Additional funding resources would certainly help us sustain and expand our adaptive tennis programming.
Q: How does LSA benefit the community and your students?
Pugliese-LaCroix: Our program brings a number of positives to our community. We provide structured, therapeutic specialized tennis instruction and a recreational outlet for children and adults with ASD and developmental disabilities. We also are a support group and a network for special needs parents. In addition, LSA provides educational opportunities for student interns in the field of special needs. And overall, we’re helping to increase community understanding and acceptance for individuals with autism.
For me, teaching adaptive tennis is such an incredibly different experience from junior, collegiate and professional tennis, because it isn’t about performance, results or winning matches. It's about celebrating the small successes along the way—and that truly puts life and tennis into perspective.
In-story photos: Love Serving Autism children take part in on-court demonstrations at the 2019 US Open.