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HomeRoyal Palm Beach, FLDelray Beach Open: Using Racquet Sports as a Therapy Tool for Autism

Delray Beach Open: Using Racquet Sports as a Therapy Tool for Autism

Since 1999, the Delray Beach Open has been one of the premier sporting events held annually in Palm Beach County.  This professional tennis tournament, which is televised nationally, welcomes more than 60,000 spectators over 10 days and also includes corporate events, amateur tennis tournaments, live music and social activities. 

What many might not know about the Delray Open is there is a philanthropic component to the tournament and for the last seven years they work very closely with Love Serving Autism

What is Love Serving Autism?

As a parent of 16-year-old twins, who are both on the Autism Spectrum, I am always looking for ways to incorporate therapy into real-life activities.

Therapy is crucial to ensuring they reach their full potential, but we must remember they are also children who need social interaction and play. Which is why I am so thankful that we were introduced to therapeutic tennis when they were only 3 years old.

A little backstory, my twins were participating at the time in Surfers for Autism. One of my twins was having a horrendous meltdown and this woman approached us and sat down next to Brendan, spoke to him quietly and he calmed down instantly.

I quickly introduced myself to this guardian angel who seemingly had these magical calming powers over my son. This guardian angel, as many of us Special Needs Moms refer to her as, is Lisa Pugliese-LaCroix: a USPTA and PTR Elite Certified Tennis Professional and an ASHA certified Speech-Language Pathologist in the field of Autism. 

Sitting next to her on the beach, while both of the twins bonded with her instantly, she mentioned that she was a tennis coach with a national nonprofit tennis program for children on the autism spectrum and she thought the kids might want to try tennis.  Now, at three years old, my twins were completely nonverbal, severe feeding issues, behavior issues, no gross or fine motor skills, they mainly participated in parallel play and had shown no interest in team or group sports.

Honestly, I thought this would be a complete waste of time and I must admit at the time I did not understand the connection between tennis and autism. Looking back, I never could have imagined how much tennis would go on to change their lives.

From the first class, I saw a change in both boys. From the visual schedules of the class, repetitiveness of the drills to the social interaction – this was a great activity where they could begin to follow routines in a small group environment and learn social skills.

But what was lacking is this program Lisa was working with was the ability for her to incorporate all of her professional training as a Speech-Language Pathologist and turn tennis activities into therapy.  This began a new life for her and the creation of “Love Serving Autism.”

Love Serving Autism began in 2017 as an after-school program at The Palm Beach School for Autism and has grown exponentially in the last seven years.  There are now 35 programs in the state of Florida and there are program in 14 states across the United States.

The program provides therapeutic opportunities to improve communication, motor skills, life skills and behaviors with a goal of incorporating these skills off the court.

three kids and two tennis coaches at the delray beach open

So what are the benefits of tennis as a therapy tool?

Tennis improves fitness skills and physical health as well as the development of gross and fine motor skills. Tennis activities including running, jumping, hand-eye coordination drills and basic tennis strokes provide children with repetitive learning opportunities which transfer into daily living skills.

Over time, there is a noticeable decrease in stereotypical behaviors such as hand flapping or rocking as a child increasingly engages in structured sports, such as tennis. With participation, the children experience an increase in overall physical and mental well-being. 

How do I enroll my child in Love Serving Autism?

The easiest way is to visit their website: https://loveservingautism.org and click on the Info & Registration tab to find a program near you.

As you can see on that age there are 14 states offering the program currently along with a summer camp program and now Pickleball Programs.  As Lisa explained, this new popularity of pickleball had led to the program incorporating all racquet sports. 

One of the things I love about Love Serving Autism is that Lisa understands that families cannot always afford extracurricular activities and most autism sports programs are not covered by insurance.

So although the program fees vary by location – if a child or young adult wishes to participate and cannot afford to do so, scholarships are available. Links to the application can be found on the same registration page.

Another highlight to the program is that siblings may join the class to assist their brother/sister with the tennis activities as well as to provide peer modeling. They do not have to register as a program participant unless requested by the Love Serving Autism staff, which means no additional fees to participate. 

two kids on the tennis court at the delray beach open

So, how is the Delray Beach Open Involved with Love Serving Autism?

The Delray Open partnered with Love Serving Autism in 2018 and has included the Love Serving Autism Athletes as part of their annual activities for the last seven years.

There is a fundraising event one evening every year, “Tacos, Tequila and Tennis” with proceeds benefitting Love Serving Autism. This year that event will be held on Thursday, February 15th, 2024.

However, the real partnership is the fun adaptive tennis clinic for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Challenges. This clinic run by Love Serving Autism will be held on Saturday, February 10th, 2024 from 1-2 pm.

This is a special afternoon for our children on the Autism Spectrum where they get to be the Tennis Stars! 

The day starts with a special tennis practice court set up for the children and young adults of Love Serving Autism which is modeled after their normal weekly classes. 

They have their visual schedules and board, therapy tools, familiar coaches and volunteers and they have about an hour to get acclimated to the new environment and socialize with their peers. 

Then at 1pm they get to play on the real tennis court, where all of the Pros play, surrounded by thousands of fans, TV crews and more and they get to be the Tennis Stars.

They run drills, play games and just get to have fun in a nonjudgmental and supportive environment.  Fans and Pro Athletes are there to cheer them on and show them all just how incredible they truly are! 

I know I tear up every year watching as Brendan and Jaden beam with pride as they look around at this stadium of fans cheering them on. It is a parent’s dream come true.

After the match, the families are invited to stay to enjoy the rest of the tournament schedule and activities at no cost. It is truly the experience of a lifetime. 

This year they will be playing before the Bryan Brothers vs Tommy Haas / Sam Querrey followed by the ATP 250 Qualifying match.  Though I must admit we are the most excited for the Bryan Brothers, who are also Identical Twins, just like my Brendan and Jaden.

The Delray Beach Open is just one example of how premier sporting events can show their awareness and acceptance for developmental disabilities. 

So many of our children and young adults just want an opportunity to try new experiences in an environment where they feel loved and supported, where they are not judged for wearing headphones for noise reduction, or sunglasses for light sensitivities, where they can flap or show excitement however they wish, where they are not frowned upon for their communication struggles and where they are celebrated for being their true, unique, amazing self.

If you haven’t purchased your tickets yet to the Delray Beach Open, be sure to visit https://www.yellowtennisball.com/en/.  Tournament begins February 9th and runs through the 18th.

And be sure to visit Love Serving Autism to learn more about their racquet sports programs: https://loveservingautism.org/ or info@loveservingautism.org. We hope to see you, as a Spectator or Player, on February 10th at the adaptive tennis clinic!


About the Author: Candi Spitz

Candi Spitz is the Director of Development and Community Relations for the non-profit 211 Palm Beach and Treasure Coast.  211 is the only free and confidential Crisis Hotline and Community Helpline serving the residents of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast that provides suicide prevention, crisis intervention, information, assessment, and referral to community service for people of all ages.

She has also served as an Ambassador for Project Lifesaver International Ambassador since 2012 and was currently serves as the Director of Ambassador and Public Relations.  Candi is also a radio and tv personality and has been the Host of WPTV NewsChannel 5’s  segment “Take 5: Now You Know” since 2018.   She is the former National Spokesperson for Autism Speaks, she spent years as a Special Needs Advocate for the Palm Beach County Court System, and she has served as an autism trainer for Palm Beach County law enforcement and rescue workers.

Most importantly, she is the mother of identical twin sons, Brendan and Jaden, who both were diagnosed with Autism in 2009. She knows firsthand the struggles and concerns that families face each day as they navigate the maze of life with special needs and is passionate about helping families find the help they so desperately need.

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