4 October 2005



Once Cory Carter got on a surfboard, he couldn't stop grinning.

Autistic children find healing in waves

The youngster, 10, hit the water here on a late summer day under the guidance of a surfing coach. As the two sat out in the ocean on a tandem board waiting for the perfect wave, Cory's father had no trouble spotting what he was looking for. "See the big smile on his face?" said Stuart Carter of Mellville, N.Y. "It's feels great. He's so excited, so happy."

Cory is autistic. He was among about 100 children with varying degrees of autism who participated in an unusual event sponsored by the non-profit group Surfers Healing.  Thirteen surfing pros from as far away as Hawaii volunteered to spend the day taking children out on the boards for an experience Carter called "just pure fun."

Autism is a developmental disorder that causes difficulty in communication and social interaction, and is marked by repetitive behaviors or obsessive interests. Children with autism often have problems with any changes in routine or familiar surroundings.
New experiences and strange places sometimes set off behavior problems in public, making family outings difficult, and as a result, "families feel social isolation," said New York State Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, D-Nassau County, a sponsor of the surfing day camp.

For parents, a large part of the pleasure of the day was being in the company of other parents of autistic children. "We're all one family," said Surfers Healing founder Israel "Izzy" Paskowitz, who runs a surfing school in San Clemente, Calif. "We're all living the same lives." He and his wife, Danielle, founded Surfers Healing in 1999, when they saw the calming effect surfing had on their son Isaiah, 14, who was diagnosed with autism at age 3. Autistic children like to be in water said Danielle Paskowitz. "They like the way it surrounds and hugs them."

This was the third year the surf camp for autistic children has been held on Long Beach, Long Island. Surfers Healing has held similar events at beaches in California, Hawaii and Mexico, all at no charge to families.

For children with autism, the camps offer "a life experience they never would have had," said Assemblyman Weisenberg, a lifeguard for 50 years who volunteered as a surfing coach. "A woman told me 'the smile my child had today is the biggest smile I've seen in his 10 years.' "

Claude Winn of Princeton, N.J., whose daughter, Maya, 5, had been out on the surfboard earlier and was awaiting a second turn, said this was her first time at such an event, and she "jumped at the opportunity." "There are not a lot of things specially designed for you and your autistic kid," she said. Here "you don't feel you're standing out in any way." Carter echoed that feeling. "This is a place where all your child's behavior is accepted. There's no need to worry, because everybody here understands," he said.

Yet, there was little unusual behavior occurring. Children played in the sand or splashed in the water as they waited for their next ride. "When children with autism are engaged in activities that are fun and enjoyable to them, they behave better," Carter said. "You see very few tantrums, very few behavior issues today."

Elliot Zuckerman, director of building services at New York's Mercantile Exchange, also runs a surfing school on Long Beach. He has volunteered with Surfers Healing each of the three years it has been held here, and he says he gets more out of it than he gives. "This is what makes living all worthwhile," he said. "Seeing them smile is what it's all about, and every one of them smiles."

Most of the children wear life vests equipped with handles on the back. They sit on the surfboard in front of the instructor, and as they catch the wave, the coach hoists the child to a standing position.

Autism expert Fred Volkmar, a professor of child psychiatry, pediatrics and psychology at the Yale University Child Study Center, said children with autism are not suited to team sports, such as baseball or soccer. That is because they have trouble making social connections or engaging in the kind of thinking required in team play. "However, kids with autism can be very good at sports like swimming, tae kwon do, even things like tennis," he said.

The physical activity may make children feel better and more receptive to social interaction, said Margaret Souders, a pediatric nurse practitioner at the autism center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "The ocean and surfing are offering both water and movement," she said.

A day on a surfboard "is not a cure," Izzy Paskowitz said. "It's not going to make our children 'normal,' whatever that is." But, he said, looking at the smiling kids around him, "it's an amazing day."

Anita Manning
3 October 2005


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