Podcast Episode 48. Tennis, because of its repetitive nature, is an excellent therapeutic tool which can develop not only physical skills but also builds language and social skills, according to this week’s podcast guest Lisa Pugliese, from Love Serving Autism.

Lisa is the founder and CEO of Lover Serving Autism and has combined her skills as an ex-professional tennis player and Speech-Language Pathologist to develop an innovative program that uses tennis to help young people on the autism spectrum develop skills. These can include the physical skills around increased fine and gross motor coordination and hand-eye coordination. In addition, other benefits include providing aerobic and cardiovascular exercise, as well as improving speed, flexibility, and agility. Playing tennis also helps to increase visual and auditory processing skills.

Lisa explains how the program is also useful in developing the language and social skills of young people. Many of them are reluctant to try anything new because they prefer to know what’s coming. Some struggle to transition to a new sport, which is why Love Serving Autism uses “Social Stories” to help participants learn what to expect from a tennis class. This helps to prepare them and familiarise them with the classes in advance.

As Lisa explains the classes are very structured so, at the beginning of class, the students meet and greet one another, which helps to improve their language and communication skills. The organization also encourages them to partake in different group activities, such as practicing tracking with the ball by rolling it back and forth with a partner as well as practice catching and throwing the ball. Lisa explains how tennis has helped many of the young people become more independent as they progress, and their individual skills develop.

Lisa talks about the challenges of running an organization like this. They are reliant on volunteers, but fortunately, they have plenty of people offering to help out. She talks very honestly about how challenging some volunteers find it to work with the young people on the program. Although the volunteers are all excited about helping, they aren’t sure how to help. They often wait on the sidelines for instruction from the program director and one of the main issues is that they just aren’t sure how to speak to autistic children. It can take time build their confidence so that they feel more comfortable helping and being part of the team.

This applies equally to the tennis professionals Lisa uses on the program. They quickly find they need a different set of skills and have to think of new ways to teach the sport. But, as Lisa notes, what they learn on this program will make them so much more effective as they go on to teach other young people who have additional needs. In a sense, they will serve as ambassadors for tennis as sport and tennis as a therapy.

Like many similar organizations Lisa has had to navigate the world of funding. She talks about the approaches they use, which include organizing events to raise money and to also promote autism awareness. She also talks about the long-term goals of Love Serving Autism which are to expand the program to more locations across the USA.

Lisa has been able to very effectively combine her passions to change the lives of many young people, impact on the volunteers and tennis professional she trains, and show just how tennis can be used as a therapy in a way which is fun but also meets the long-term objective of building the self-worth of the young people she serves.