Surfing to heal children’s autism
The weightlessness and rhythms of the ocean offer a therapeutic experience, a respite from the constant assault on their senses.
Early the other morning I was walking on the beach by the Malibu pier with my friend Karla and we stumbled upon the most incredible sight : hundreds of children, dads, moms, brothers, friends and volunteers wading in the icy grey waters of the Pacific cheering at a bunch of burly surfers and kids in wetsuits. The surfers carried the kids on the front of their boards or on their backs and in their arms, some kids were squealing with joy, others were a bit scared; it might have been their first encounter with the ocean.
It turns out it was an event organized by Surfer’s Healing , and this is what they do: We take kids with autism surfing. We paddle out together on tandem boards to catch the waves that come our way. That’s what we do; that’s what we love. On the surface, our contribution seems simple: each year, our volunteer-staffed camps give over 4,500 children with autism and their families a fun, engaging day at the beach.
But go deeper, and you’ll see that a quiet revolution is taking place. Through the simple act of riding waves together, we’re defying the status quo. When we help kids get up on a board, we’re challenging preconceived notions of capability. When we encourage participants to dive in, we’re empowering them to engage with the world. And when we ride the waves together, we’re affirming that every person is a gift.
A Powerful Experience: Many children with autism struggle with sensory overload; in other words, simple sensations can overwhelm them. The weightlessness and rhythms of the ocean offer a therapeutic experience, a respite from the constant assault on their senses.
Surfers Healing is the original surf camp for children with autism, and we’ve been serving the community since 1996. Yet what we offer isn’t a ‘cure’, or even ‘traditional’ therapy. It’s a completely different sensation and environment for our participants. We give individuals a chance to encounter the waves, to challenge themselves, to try something new. And since 1 in every 68 US children has an ASD (CDC report, March 2014), our work is more vital than ever.
Our biggest challenge? Getting kids to come out of the water! Once they ride with us, they don’t want to stop. Attending our camps positively impacts children with autism; the experience helps instill confidence and calm. Yet over the years we’ve seen that Surfers Healing also has a profound impact on parents. Autism parents are always hearing about what their children cannot do. But at a Surfers Healing camp, it’s all about what their kids can do.
In the words of one volunteer, “For parents to see their kid up on a surfboard … sometimes, it’s nothing less than a miracle.”
And from Surfer’s Mag, a great article here: Autism has been defined by the World Health Organization and the American Psychological Association as a developmental disability resulting from a disorder of the human central nervous system. Some of the symptoms of autism include staring into open areas, odd movement patterns, and slow language skills. “More accurately”, said Nick Tarlov, MD, a surfer and second year resident in Neurology at USC Medical Center, “the child tends not to make eye contact with other people and does not perform social behaviors that other children learn, such as playing with other children. Mother’s notice that their baby does not have a ‘social smile’ – the way babies will smile at their mother and giggle.
Slow language skills, odd movement patterns and obsessive compulsive behaviors such as banging one’s head into a wall, inability to follow directions, occasional violent tantrums, spinning around in circles, poor eye contact and an unusual self-absorption bordering on selfishness are also symptoms. Autistic children seem to exist in a world of their own.
“The group of volunteers will be lead by Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy, one of the original Malibu ‘pit’ crew during the Golden Years of the 1950s. In the ’50s, Tubesteak lived in a shack on the beach at Malibu for two summers, and was one of a group of surfers that included the pioneers of the California surfer lifestyle”.
“Kemp Aaberg, Miki Dora, Tom Morey and how about Johnny Fain, Dewey Weber, The Windbag, and Lance Carson,” Tubesteak said. In the 1959 movie Gidget, the Great Kahoona, acted by Cliff Robertson, was based partly on Tubesteak’s life. Tubesteak has spent a lot of time staring out to sea, and understands these special children maybe a little better than most. “The kids are remarkable,” Tubesteak said. “I’ve been to several of these things, talked to parents, and several instructors. If I were very young like them I’d be terrified to go in the ocean on a surfboard, even with an instructor.
The moment the children get on the board it seems as if they entered another world. It appears the wind and the waves calm them, although instructors say the kids remain the same, and they seem to enjoy the environment. It’s incredible. These scrawny children have no fear of the ocean. It doesn’t hurt things that instructors are super athletes and maybe the kids know they’re in good hands. Some of the children are as young as four years old. When you attend a Surfer’s Healing camp, you know something special is happening”.
Surfers share some of these traits, specifically the single-minded, obsessive pursuit of waves, so it’s only natural that a group of surfers should take a group of autistic kids out to sea on surfboards and push them into waves.
Karen Gallagher is a surf instructor on the North Shore of Oahu who volunteered for a Surfer’s Healing in Hawaii. “I helped out the Paskowitz family at Haleiwa Ali’i Park, and it was awesome,” Gallagher said. Someone should make a photo documentary of the kids’ faces before and after they surf; the transformation is incredible. But then again, so it is with folks like us, too!”
Tubesteak estimates there will be as many as 150 kids at First Point, “so the more helping hands, the better”. Tubesteak will be aided and abetted by fellow Malibu Golden Years veteran Kemp Aaberg, who was one of the original style phenomenons of the ’50s. Surf instructors from the Paskowitz Surf Camp will be there to make sure the kids ride waves safely. Josh Tracy is Tubesteak’s 22-year-old grandson and will be one of the volunteers. “I enjoy taking the kids out in the water,” Tracy said. “It’s amazing the calming effect it has on them. It’s rewarding to see the kids and their families so proud and excited. It’s a great experience for everyone.”
So get off your lazy asses and catch the next Surfer’s Healing surf camp. Dates are on their website. Contribute, volunteer or simply take your kids and go to watch. It is a life changing experience.