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The Globe and Mail

Boards of health: surf camp aims to help kids with autism

Matthew Amos goes for a ride while Joe McNulty, with Surfers Healing, times a push.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Last year Kate Wells' family went through six TVs in six months – nine-year-old Aidan destroyed them all. Aidan, who has limited vocabulary and motor skills due to autism, experiences what Ms. Wells calls "severe meltdowns." Afterward, he returns to his usual sweet self, saying quietly, "I sorry," his mom said.

Like many kids with autism, Aidan's fits are triggered by his senses – loud noises like babies crying or dogs barking. Even though it has been a difficult year, Aidan recently found an activity that has left him calm and relaxed: surfing.

California-based non-profit called Surfers Healing offers free surf camps to children with autism. The group, run by former pro-surfer Israel (Izzy) and wife Danielle Paskowitz, believe that surfing can provide long-term therapeutic benefits to kids with autism. Aidan attended their first-ever surf camp in Canada this past weekend as part of a fundraising event called Aloha Toronto.

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Surfers Healing runs about 20 camps each year all over the U.S., with the help of donors and volunteers instructors, many of who are pro surfers. The Paskowitzes have even been featured in their own reality show, The Swell Life , on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Researchers remain skeptical. Dr. Wendy Roberts, co-director of autism research at Sick Kids hospital, said that, though surfing may have recreational and therapeutic benefits, she wouldn't consider it therapy, citing a lack of evidence that it has a lasting impact. Surfing, she said, is just one of a number of activities touted in recent years to be therapeutic for autistic children. "It can be hard for parents who, one week, are told to swim with dolphins, the next week horse-back riding, now it's surfing," she said.

That's no reason to disregard surfing's benefits, said autism treatment specialist Jonathan Alderson, who runs a private practice in Toronto helping parents create customized plans that integrate many different types of treatments.

He said surfing can help improve a child's balance, as many autistic children struggle with limitations to their motor skills. He also pointed to water's benefits for those who suffer from sensory sensitivity – what Mr. Paskowitz refers to as a "sensory bath." Water, or hydrotherapy, has long been used in physiotherapy to treat injuries and illnesses, but recent research has begun to look at its effects on autism, too. A 2010 study by Pan Chien-Yu published in Autism, a scholarly journal, found that swim classes appeared to help autistic children improve their social skills and self-confidence.

Most importantly, Mr. Alderson said, surfing gives much-needed downtime to autistic kids whose lives may otherwise be completely programmed with treatments. "It allows a space, a moment where the kid sees 'oh, an adult is doing something with me and they're not trying to teach me something or get me to prove myself.'" That experience, he said, can help the child feel accepted.

The Paskowitzes started Surfers Healing after Mr. Paskowitz saw the calming effect that surfing had on their son Isaiah, who was diagnosed at age 3. Like Aidan, Isaiah had frequent tantrums, and would beat down on his head with his own fists, or bite at his arms until they bled.

After Mr. Paskowitz began taking Isaiah out on the waves, he said, "in the moments he was riding, I swore he was like a regular boy. It was revelation – that I could do something with my son." The tantrums became less frequent, Mr. Paskowitz said, to the point where, at 21, Isaiah rarely has them at all.

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Other parents of autistic children began asking him to take their kids, too. At that point in his life, he said he was drinking "way too much," and travelling to surf competitions to avoid being at home. Because he didn't understand autism, he didn't know how to deal with it and felt guilty, secretly fearing he had somehow caused it. "Nobody really knew what the hell was going on. It wouldn't be that absurd to think it was genetic," he said. The camp made him feel like he was doing something right, he said.

Like most kids at the camp, Aidan approached the surfboard nervously. But by his second day, he was happily catching waves with an instructor standing behind him, wiggling his hands happily in the air before jumping onto the sand and letting out a happy squeal. "I win!" he shouted to his sister. "I win!"

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