This story first appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of New York Tennis Magazine. Click Here to read the full digital issue.
April was World Autism Month, an observance created by the Autism Society of America to promote awareness, inclusion and self-determination for all. An organization that has taken that mission to heart and lives by that creed every month is Love Serving Autism (LSA).
Created in 2016, LSA was founded by Lisa Pugliese-LaCroix and since then has been making a difference in the lives of children and adults with special needs.
“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 (ASD) and developmental challenges,” Pugliese-LaCroix said in an interview with the USTA. “Our goal is for participants to apply these newly learned skills throughout the community, including in school, in the workplace, in social gatherings and in home settings. For tennis coaching professionals, we provide education and training for an adaptive tennis specializing in the industry.”
Pugliese-LaCroix is a speech-language pathologist in the field of autism and special needs, and for nearly 20 years she has specialized in the evaluation and treatment of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. A former collegiate tennis player at Duke University and the University of Florida, she decided to combine her tennis experience and background in speech therapy to launch LSA, a 501(c)(3) organization.
“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,” she said.
The organization serves about 250 children and adults in South Florida, organizing special community-based tennis clinics during ATP and WTA tournaments such as the Delray Beach Open, Miami Open and the U.S. Open here in New York. During the Miami Open, the young adults in the programs volunteer as greeters. At the U.S. Open in 2019, the LSA flew 21 of its players up to New York and were able to go on Court 17 for a USTA Net Generation Experience clinic.
LSA students had the chance to play at the U.S. Open in 2019
Pugliese-LaCroix has received the USTA Florida Outstanding Diversity Achievement Award, and been honored with the STAR Award by USPTA Florida and USPTA National, given to members who have dedicated many years to volunteering in grassroots tennis and through initiatives incorporating multicultural and other aspects and bring the sport and sportsmanship to the players they touch.
During the pandemic, Pugliese-LaCroix and her team adjusted by converting its in-person classes to a virtual tennis program on Zoom for adaptive tennis players. The classes continue to be held even as the LSA re-opens its in-person classes and locations. As of March 2021, LSA has re-opened nine of its locations in Florida, and the organization has the goal of opening 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.
The LSA also plans to expand its reach in more states, including Illinois, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania.
“Love Serving Autism has been a great, positive experience for David on and off the court,” said Jean Brown, a parent of a child who plays in LSA programs. “He has learned skills and the rules of tennis, spoke to tennis professionals and went to some big tennis matches, in and out of state.”
Samuel Jolley, another LSA parent, added:
“Love Serving Autism has provided a wonderful atmosphere for my son to be active and part of a team. He has made great friends and Saturday mornings on the courts is by far his favorite part of the week.”
Tennis has an impact beyond the wins and losses, and can be a used as a vessel to teach invaluable life skills. LSA helps kids tap into their own potential and has already made a difference in the lives of hundreds of children and adults.
“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,” said Pugliese-LaCroix. “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.”
To help and learn more about Love Serving Autism, visit LoveServingAutism.Org.