The Autism Society established the first National Autistic Children’s Week in 1972, which now takes place every April during Autism Acceptance Month—introducing Lisa Pugliese-LaCroix, who combines her love of tennis with her commitment to autistic children and adults.
Lisa started playing tennis when she was only five years old. She continued to play throughout her high school years but then decided to pursue her degree in speech therapy and work with children with autism and special needs. Due to a back injury, she stopped playing tennis while in college.
After graduation, she began working as a speech therapist and also volunteered as a program director. Missing tennis from her life, she wanted to combine her passions: Tennis, Education, and Therapy, so in early 2016, she founded Love Serving Autism.
Her non-profit organization is based in Florida and offers tennis lessons at 14 different locations. As the motto suggests, Love Serving Autism serves autism off the tennis court as well. Playing tennis improves fine and gross motor skills as well as hand-eye coordination, communication, and life skills.
Currently, the program serves over 250 children and adults, all with different needs. According to Lisa, 40 percent of the program users are minimally verbal or completely nonverbal, so they had to develop visual communication tools and methods to reach all of them. Aside from communication, a person’s behavior can also affect the work, which is why certified behavioral therapists assist the programs.
Love Serving Autism focuses on coordination, which is impaired in some people with autism. So Lisa and her team designed an obstacle course on the tennis court to help practice repetitive movement patterns.
The charity trains tennis professionals for adaptive tennis specialization in the industry while supporting parents of children with special needs. Lisa believes it is also important to increase the acceptance and understanding of autism for individuals and communities.
In 2019, Lisa was elected by the United States Tennis Association to join the Adaptive Tennis Training and Education Subcommittee to develop an adaptive tennis curriculum, in addition to serving as the 2020 National Adaptive Committee Chair for the United States Professional Tennis Association.
Lisa’s dream is to open an inclusive therapeutic tennis and recreation facility in South Florida and teach tennis to neurotypical and adaptive athletes. When she sees the faces of the supported children and adults on the tennis court and the emotions they display, she knows it was worth the hard work.
According to her, “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.”
During the pandemic, Lisa continued her work by developing a virtual tennis program that trains hand-eye coordination and social skills for children and adults with autism.
The centers have now begun to reopen, which means people with autism will once again be able to enjoy the love of tennis.