Love Serving Autism: Tennis on the Spectrum, with Lisa Pugliese | EDB

Love Serving Autism founder Lisa Pugliese on how tennis can help those on the spectrum

(24 minutes) Lisa Pugliese is a speech and language pathologist who is also the founder and CEO of Love Serving Autism. Their mission: “Love Serving Autism expands life skills, especially communication, through specialized therapeutic tennis instruction in order to increase community inclusion and independence of individuals with developmental challenges. The goal is for participants to apply their newly learned skills throughout the community, including school, workplace, social/recreational gatherings, and home settings.”

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Welcoming Lisa Pugliese

HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman and welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. And today, I’m so happy because we’re so lucky to have right here with us, Lisa Pugliese, who runs Love Serving Autism which you’re going to hear all about where those of us with different brains get to learn how to play tennis. Lisa welcome.  

LISA PUGLIESE (LP): Thank you for having me today.  

What is Love Serving Autism?

HR: What is Love Serving Autism?  

LP: Love Serving Autism is a specialized therapeutic program, teaching tennis, communication and life skills to children and adults on the spectrum. We provide the tennis pathway, so you start with red ball tennis program and we advance to the different colors of tennis balls. Our bigger goal is inclusion so as the children and adults advance, it’d be great if we provide competitive opportunities for them. We do have a few program participants now who are in inclusive after school junior programs which is amazing. We also provide off-court opportunities for increasing communication skills and life skills such as volunteering at a hospitality tent and a professional tournament. So our bare goal really is to teach skills on the tennis court that generalize into the home, the school, the community and the vocational settings.  

Speech and language pathology

HR: You know, you have such an interesting background. First of all, thank you for all you’re doing with Love Serving Autism, getting all the kids out on the tennis court and socializing and doing all the stuff you do. But people may not know you’re also a speech pathologist.  

LP: Yes.  

HR: So tell us how you got into being a speech pathologist?  

LP: Well, I had a career in tennis and decided that I wanted to pursue another career after, and I thought “what career really focuses on helping others?” And I found out about becoming a speech and language therapist, I applied to graduate school over 18 years ago, and I graduated and started working in a school, and 15 years later I’m still a speech and language pathologist.  

Lisa’s tennis background

HR: Well, You had quite a great tennis career going and tell us about your tennis career?  

LP: I started playing tennis in Memphis, Tennessee, when I was 5 years old and took a tennis lesson and the coach said you know your daughter is great hand-eye coordination and I really like the sport. I continued to play all the way through college. I started at Duke University for one year. I ended up transferring to University of Florida, it was a little warmer. I graduated at University of Florida and we won the college championship socials exciting my senior year. Then I went into professional tennis and played for a few years, building a professional ranking and had a bit of a back injury. So I had surgery and I took a break, and then went into graduate school. So I had a fun childhood playing tennis and have traveled around the world and had a lot of amazing experiences.  

HR: And you’re very modest about it, successful tennis career.  

LP: Thank you. I just feel like we’re all given gifts and that’s something that thankfully my parents expose me to the sport because I really you know who you don’t know until you try something right.  

HR: And that particular sport matches your brain pretty good.  

LP: Yes, I do, I love the the repetition in tennis. I like the fact that you’re by yourself, especially in singles that it’s– you can play socially doubles, but singles tends to be a little more independent and I just love this because it’s for visuals. And now I get to teach it, so that’s a whole other–I mean you can do a lot with tennis, whether you’re playing professionally or college or high school coach, or you can have a full career in it. So now I’m lucky enough to be working with children and adults on the spectrum.  

Founding Love Serving Autism

HR: Well, you love serving autism your 501 c-3 not-for-profit, tell us how you started that and what led to that?  

LP: Well, I was about 10 years into my speech and language career as a therapist. And I started to miss tennis. And I read an article about a national nonprofit, Aceing Autism, and realized, “you know, we don’t have anything like this in Florida.” So I contacted the founder, and for six years I helped run all of their programs. It’s an introduction to tennis, and I realized of 6 years into that that I really have a new vision as a therapist about designing a local program called Love Serving Autism. So, August 2016 Love Serving Autism became a 501 c-3 a nonprofit, that’s where it started.  

Tennis and neurodiversity

HR: Tell us in what ways tennis can be beneficial to those of us whose brains are a bit different?  

LP: As I had previously explained, tennis is quite repetitive. A lot of our children in our programs will go home and like to practice on the wall with one child who brings tennis balls home and hits on the wall of his house so that they had to board the windows at their home. Tennis is, like I said, visual. It’s not 100 percent social unless, like I said, you play double in group. It’s aesthetic, so a lot of our children like the feel of the ball that provides sensory input and the balls make sound, some of our children like to dribble the ball because they like to hear the echo of it. So parents are really surprised a lot of times, even if a child has more profound autism, that their child is drawn to it because they never thought that they would be interested in a sport such as tennis.  

HR: What are the biggest challenges you encounter in teaching someone with autism how to play tennis?  

LP: Motor planning is definitely one of the challenges especially for individuals with Asperger’s. The program participants are not always regulated some days, so they might come to tennis and have a great day and feel very coordinated. And then other times they come and they’re just not as focused and then they feel so frustrated a little bit and some of our children do not have expressed language skills, so they’re not able to communicate how they’re feeling. So once in a while we’ll see behaviors and the volunteers do a great job on working with the children to encourage them to continue. But like I said, once the program participants learn the routine of the program, they know what to expect that greatly helps them when they walk into a class. They know, “okay, we’re going to do ABC,” and there are not really any surprises going on. I think that makes a difference.  

HR: What do you feel is the most rewarding part of your work?  

LP: We have one child who is nonverbal and the parents provide testimonies to us sometimes and feedback and one of the parents said that their child brings their tennis racket to their bed every night, and puts it right by their bed. And I never knew that he liked tennis at that level. I thought he’s playing a sport but he really wasn’t able to tell us how much he enjoys playing. And when she told me that, I realized a lot of the parents have incredible stories even traveling to the US Open in New York. The experiences through the airport, going to the tournament. So I think it’s so rewarding when I hear parents tell me what they see at home, things that maybe I don’t see in tennis and that makes me happy I guess.  

The future for Love Serving Autism

HR: What are your upcoming plans for Love Serving Autism?  

LP: Well we are currently expanding. We started in South Florida, we’ll be opening new programs in North Florida in 2020. We also, which is kind of new news, are now approved for fundraising compliance in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, so we potentially may be expanding. And the next one to two years outside of Florida. So that is an exciting project for us, we also have a vision of designing an indoor Therapeutic Tennis Center in South Florida, so that would be a small cord inside that we could teach the basic hand-eye coordination skills, and the children and adults can also receive speech therapy occupational and physical therapies, something that we’re interested in too. A lot of projects going on.  

HR: That’s for sure. I like the way that everything is all combined, and it’s not separate in your brain and why not do it all. And one of the long-term goals of Love Serving Autism is just spread it and expand it.  

LP: Well because I’m a speech and language therapist and I have a tennis background. My goal is to provide a specialized therapeutic program through tennis so that we’re increasing language skills so that for instance, if a child starts tennis and an adult enters our program, that we’re teaching them functional life skills. So that when they’re playing tennis on or off the court, that is something that they will generalize for their lifetime. So we do a lot of off-court events such as the Delray Beach opens in February, it’s a professional tournament for men and we have some of our high school students volunteering at the hospitality tent greeting guests as they enter the tournament. So my bigger goal is not only to obviously learn tennis skills but also to generalize what they’re learning into their life. You know, character development, we work on sportsmanship, effort, integrity. All of those, so that they are learning those basic skills. It’s tennis plus a lot more in my mind, yes.  

Helping autism on and off the tennis court

HR: Well, it certainly sounds like it. How does helping someone with their speech and communication challenges compare to helping someone on the tennis court?  

LP: Well, when we’re teaching someone specifically with tennis skills, it’s more hand-eye coordination technique tactical skills when were focusing on increasing communication skills. For instance, in a Love Serving Autism program, we’re really focusing on engaging the child on communication opportunities. So for a few examples, one of the volunteers tosses a ball to a child, and instead of just tossing the ball and the child hits a volley, we might say, “Ready, set” and the child says “go”. They might point to a visual, they might have a device for voice output, that says “go.” So our goal is to really increase communication skills receptively is comprehension, so we focus on following directions, teaching the children how to listen to their coaches. It’s the same type of therapy we do in a classroom except it’s in tennis. It’s just a different environment. I’ve created a communication tool kit which has vocabulary boards for the children, so they can point to words if they want to ask for a break. If they need to go to the bathroom, if they want water. They can build sentences, “I want water please.” We also created visuals for the volunteers or program director to wear around their neck on a lanyard so that they’re easily accessible. We have an upcoming appointment with a company in Ohio called Saltillo. Saltillo creates communication devices and visuals for children and adults with communication challenges. So we do look forward to partnering with them and focusing on this project to really increase the language skills during tennis so it’s a work-in-progress. As an SLP, as a speech therapist, it’s really important that I remind the volunteers and the program directors to implement these strategies during the classes.  

Visiting the U.S. Open

HR: We’re so grateful that your non-for-profit, Love Serving Autism ranges for all of those individuals on the spectrum, fly up to New York to go to the open and tell us all about that, what was that like? And how did you arrange it? That’s an amazing adventure.  

LP: Thank you, so yes the United States Tennis Association invited us to bring 21 children from Love Serving Autism to participate in a 10-minute, on court experience at the US Open this year on August 31st. It took about four months of planning, fundraising. We prepared the children by creating social stories. For instance, what do we expect when we get to New York? The parents did an incredible job, some of the children had never flown in airplanes before. We contacted a few airlines. In the airline, most of them flew, or JetBlue and Delta, and we had a travel agent who worked at the Airlines and notified them in advance so we have families with children on the spectrum on the plane who had never flown before and they did an incredible job. The children adapted, they were able to cope very well with the change, in routine. When we arrived at our event, the morning of it was a little bit of a challenge for some of the children because we had to wait, it was a long waiting process. We actually had to wait in the tunnel under one of the stadium courts for 30 minutes in a line. We kept reassuring them, providing positive reinforcement that we’re going to go into the tennis court very soon and I’m so proud of the children because you can never underestimate a child on the spectrum, because who knew that they would go out on the tennis court and shine the way they did? And I’m so proud of them, and the parents were amazed that they actually were able to accomplish this goal. And I do hope that we’re invited again in the future. And it was a lot of preparation, but you know, my point is that we need to provide these types of opportunities for these individuals so that they can experience life outside of going from school to home. I think that was an amazing experience.  

HR: Sounds like the adventure of a lifetime.  

LP: Yes, yes it was.  

Adapting to the individual

HR: You know, you have some many different kids, you see. And as they say, if you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism. Because everybody’s different. How do you adapt to all the different types that are part of Love Serving Autism?  

LP: Well, that is a great question. When you visit one of our tennis classes, you do see a wide range of children in our classes. Again, some are very verbal, some are nonverbal, some have–yeah, they’re all different personalities, different skill levels. Part of our registration process is the parents can–if I don’t know the child of the program director doesn’t initially know the child’s, whether it’s through the classroom or some other experience, the parent can write notes on about their child’s personality, their preferred interests, if they have any behaviors, so that we’re a little bit aware of upfront before the program starts of what potentially are the triggers for this child. The antecedents for potential behaviors and what helps them. So from my experiences as a speech therapist, I know that one of the main keys on a successful program is routine and consistency so that I’m able to recognize if we provide that positive feedback in that reassurance to the children that this is a safe environment. This is something new, but it’s fun and we’re going to repetitively do this consistently throughout our programs. I think that that makes a big difference. The volunteers get to know the children too and they may like one child the best. They may want to work with that one child and they form a bond. So that whether the child is nonverbal, Asperger’s, you know all levels, that they know how to work individually with that child. We do have high school students volunteering for community service hours, and they enjoy it too because they see the wide-range of children on the spectrum. We just have to adapt the modifier program to meet their needs and parents give us great input, therapists, we have respite workers who come out, behavior therapists to our classes and help us as well.  

HR: What a great program.  

LP: And we do have to provide what’s called “If, Then” boards. So if a child is struggling in tennis that day at first, and if a child’s struggling that day we have a visual that says “first tennis, then…” and they select their preferred activity. So that if they have anxiety, they don’t know how long tennis is for that day, and they want their iPad, we’ll have a visual icon of tennis and then will reassure them that if you finished your tennis class, then you get your iPad. And it does it again that does make a difference. It reassures them that this is one activity for the day and then they get to go on to another activity, so we just we modified as we go.  

HR: It’s great, just great how you indoctrinate all of the positive principles, discipline, practice repetition. And at the same time, it’s anything but a one-size-fits-all, it’s not. It’s every brain is different and you’re attacking it that way and getting great results.  

LP: Yes, Thank you.  

Recognizing gifts

HR: Well, thank you. Is there anything you’d like to cover today that we have not covered?  

LP: But I’m learning more and more that I’ve been in the field for 15 years, the term neurodiversity is changing. Because when I started as a therapist and as a speech therapist in the classroom, the statistics were a lot different. And now I feel all of us are connected. The more and more, the older I become, and the more I get to meet the families, and the parents and the children and adults on the spectrum, I recognize that. And I don’t really have a question about it, I just see it evolving and it’s more there’s more understanding. There is more acceptance, there is more awareness. That we’re all unique and we all have different gifts, and I know Temple Grandin talks about it, it’s important to expose your children and adults with the neurodiversity or not, to sports, to everything in life because you never know what they may connect to. So I think it’s been interesting seeing it evolve through the years and seeing more children play tennis you realize, “Okay, just because they have autism doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be great tennis players.” You know, so yeah.  

HR: You told the story of the individual who would take that tennis racket, the bed with them and all. Give us the flip side of it. Give us the flip side of how it makes you feel?  

LP: Well, as I said, when I go to the different programs, and initially, I started at every program and now that we’re expanding at via program directors who are trained, whether the teachers teaching assistants, therapists, tennis pros. So like I said, I was explaining to the point where I don’t know all the children now, but when I do know a child and I know that, like I said, they’re nonverbal and they’re not able to stay, and I can’t wait for tennis today. But the fact that they are bringing their tennis racket to the room at night, that’s symbolic to me. Because it’s their way of expressing themselves. So I think that there are days when running a nonprofit is very challenging. A lot of days and it’s one step at a time. And when you hear encouraging stories like that, you are making a difference. You want to continue because sometimes it’s opening new programs. Meeting new families, you’re hoping that this is impacting them. And when you hear stories like Marvin, you hear that it’s amazing that he actually connects to the sport like that, and he may not be able to verbalize it, but, he’s showing us through his actions.  

HR: You know sometimes we forget that none of these entities such as autism exists in the vacuum. You know, you can’t have autism without a little bit of anxiety, maybe a little depression here and there. And this is such a great outlet. I Love Serving Autism. How can our audience learn more about you and your programs?  

LP: Well and before I answer that, yes. Tennis is great for exercise. A lot of our children have sensory integration issues, so that if they’re not eating healthy at times, they’re very particular about what they eat. Some of the children are not hydrated, they don’t drink enough water. So tennis, really one of our goals of Serving Autism also is to help train the families on the importance of proper nutrition and diet and exercise and hydration. That is why I wanted to mention that too. I know it’s not easy for the parents when their child will only eat the same foods everyday. But it’s something that it’s a great goal you know for the families.  

HR: Well, it’s essential. And the fact that the current research shows how a decent diet, such mediterranean style that will rewire your brain and the negative affect all of the greasy and junkie and processed stuff has on it. Same thing with exercise, and we all know we need to do that but this puts in such a way as to be the whole package in one program.  

LP: We have a website: Love Serving Autism. All of our programs are listed on our website. We update them every few months with the new program dates. We have a volunteer page, so if you’re interested in volunteering, you can go to our volunteer page. And there’s a short video on a few minutes of one of our programs so you can actually preview what you would be doing working with the children on the court. There’s a volunteer screening link as well, so it’s important that you complete the screening process before you start. We have a donation page which helps us with fundraising for our programs. The US Tennis Association Florida Division has been incredible. They have been partnering with us, and we are about to partner again for the next three years. So they’re giving us some equipment and funding for our new programs. We’re really thankful for that. So I think that if you have any questions, we have a YouTube channel, we have social media pages as well. My new project of mine also is to create more program videos so that new program directors, volunteers can see more about what we’re doing in our classes. But for now while we do have one specific video for my Boca Raton program that shows kind of like the pathway of what we do during one of our classes.  

HR: You’re doing such great work. Keep up the great work and thank you so much for being here today!  

LP: Thank you for having me, I really enjoy, and continue your great work you do for different brains.  

HR: Thank you and we hope you’ll come back and visit.  

LP: Yeah, so, thank you!