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Waves of Healing: How Surfing Changes the Lives of Children with Autism [Excerpt]

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Waves of Healing: How Surfing Changes the Lives of Children with Autism, which explores the benefits of surf therapy for children and young adults on the autism spectrum.

Have you ever been told that something could change your life?

Maybe it was an investment, a “sure thing”. Maybe it was a magic pill, a career change—even a piece of cutting-edge technology.

Maybe you gave it a shot, maybe you didn’t. But odds are, it didn’t really change your life. So, like a balloon deflating, your budding hopes and desires disappeared. Skepticism set in. “That only happens in Hollywood movies” became your mentality.

That’s because opportunities that create true life change—where new passions are instilled that significantly change your life’s trajectory—are few and far between.

And that’s why, when they do show up, the moments they create are so special.

It’s even more special for families of children with autism—a condition that sees children struggle against difficulties with social skills, repetitive behaviors and communication. A condition at affects one out of every 57 children in North America.

A condition which irrevocably changes their lives, and the lives of everyone around them.

From the moment a diagnosis is reached, parents begin frantically searching for ways to help their child, leaving no stone unturned. Some are united by the challenge; others separate when the physical, emotional and financial toll becomes too great.

Then, once a sense of behavioral stability is finally reached, parents continue to search for education and activities to help their child progress further. It’s challenging. It’s grueling. And it’s never-ending process.

That’s why, when the opportunity for true life change presented itself to families experiencing autism in Florida in 2008, it really was something special.

A new organization, Surfers for Autism, was promising to help children and families of autism in a new and unique way: through surfing. Many families were understandably hesitant: meltdowns, outbursts and pathological fear were very real risks when placing someone with autism onto a surfboard in the ocean.

But despite misgivings, on a Saturday morning in April of 2008, a group of surfers gathered on a South Florida beach to take children and teenagers with autism and other disabilities surfing.

No one at the event could have predicted what would come next. Throughout that day, 40 participants rode the waves in to shore with smiles spread wide across their faces. Some, previously diagnosed as “nonverbal”, cheered and raised their hands at their accomplishment as they neared the shoreline. Those not receptive to touch were holding hands with the volunteer surf instructors as they waded into the sea. Participants experienced calming effects; others appeared more focused, more attentive.

That day served not only as first event for the nonprofit organization Surfers for Autism—it was also the genesis of a community, one united by surfing and autism, that still thrives today. After that inaugural event, Surfers for Autism and its groupie-like community increased in size and influence. A “Surf Tour” was created that visits 10–13 cities and beach towns up and down Florida’s golden sand coast throughout the year. Participant lists grew from 40 to 200. The volunteer sign-up list swelled.

My involvement with this eclectic community began as a volunteer surf instructor. The events featured live concerts, food trucks, and a chance to teach participants how to surf while spending time with other likeminded surf volunteers. In other words, these events were simply the place to be on the weekend.

But in the process, I got to see so many incredible moments and hear even more incredible stories—stories of overcoming odds, of breaking down barriers, of true life change. Stories that deserved to be told in Hollywood.

I was studying journalism in college at the time, and so I decided to put what I was learning in class into action. I wanted to try to tell a few of these stories.

Bylines with publications like Eastern Surf Magazine, Autism Parenting Magazine and The Atlantic Current soon followed. And as I met and interviewed families, I began hearing about life changes occurring on an even deeper level than I could have imagined.

Participants were experiencing “therapeutic benefits” thanks to surfing. Surfing had become—literally—a form of therapy, no co-pay required. Participants were finding their identities through the sport—some even developing a desire to compete.

Surfing had become an integral part of the participants’ lives. Volunteers were developing a passion for helping those with disabilities and many were pursuing a career in the industry. Mothers were in tears, fathers proudly cheered.

Families met one another and for the first time, found people with whom they could relate and vent.

Bonds, born from saltwater and surfboards, were instantly created.

The same went for siblings: for the first time, they could relate to someone else who had sibling with autism.

What’s more, a select group of families—known as “frequent fliers”, each had such a profound experience with surfing that they attended all or nearly all events during each Surf Tour—forming a tight-knit group of those who had fully embraced the healing power of surfing in their children’s lives.

The surf therapy, the community, the camaraderie, the volunteering, the road trips, the early morning wake up calls, the wipeouts…these families were all in. It was only a matter of time before I was, too.

Through surfing, these inspiring families experienced, and continue to experience, healing and hope.

This is their story.


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