On the Road – Surfers Healing and the Autism Beach Bash

So… I’m sure that a lot of parents of children with Autism who are already “in the know” about this could potentially be annoyed with me for divulging the existence of this, due to the limited spots available each year.  But.. if you don’t know about this already, you should.  Trust me, you should.

There is this great charity out there called Surfers Healing.  Surfers Healing is a charity founded by a former competitive surfer who has a son with Autism.  The basis of the charity is sharing his discovery of the effect that riding a surfboard has on children with this disorder.

Let me start off by saying I never really intended to write a review of this – I was going to just mention in passing that the Monster actually got a slot to go and that we’d gone… but this was such a great experience that I changed my mind and thought I’d share.

IMG_0553Now, those of you who have seen my avatar on comments here and there have noticed that I’m clearly not a summer sports person.  (I’m the guy in the picture who is screaming at the curling stone.)  I can swim well, and I have been known to partake in summer sports – mostly golf, but I’m passable at soccer and other things – now and again.  I much prefer winter sports however, and I grew up in northern New Jersey, so surfing is clearly not in my wheelhouse.

We tried, unsuccessfully, to register for the Ocean City date for Surfers Healing which occurred a few weeks ago.  We did, however, manage to get a date for the Belmar, New Jersey outing.  (It was simple math – we aren’t that much further from Belmar, and my family still largely lives in New Jersey, so it seemed like it was not that bad of an idea to go for it.  Plus, the Belmar date was on a weekend, which also made logistics easier in terms of concerns about missing other activities.)  When we got our confirmation with the paperwork that needed to be filled out, we were directed to sign up for a “Beach Bash” as well, which was required for attending the surf camp.  Alright, so… that was easy enough to do.

The “beach bash” was a program from the Autism Family Services of New Jersey, held in parallel to the Surfers Healing outing – participants in the latter had to be signed up for the former, but folks who didn’t get into the Surfers Healing program could attend the former as well.  So, on Sunday morning, we made the drive down from northern New Jersey to Belmar, parked our car in the designated lot for the bash, and walked over to get ourselves signed in.

Trust me, it was well worth the trip.

Yes, we had come for the chance for the Monster to go have something fun and interesting by going surfing.  But.. the bash was so much more than that.  The Beach Bash was carnival games, and art therapy, and an inflatable water slide, and a lifeguard-watched beach. It was vendors and service providers making sure that folks knew what was available and how they could afford it.  (And yes, despite not living in New Jersey, we collected a good number of cards of things that are applicable to us in Maryland too.)  It was hundreds of families with children also on the spectrum just enjoying the weather – and it was great beach weather – and no one looking oddly at any Autism-typical behaviors.

The Monster himself isn’t so keen on obeying the rules for games, and the volunteers were very good and patient with trying to balance letting him have fun with trying to make sure that other children got a turn too.  The vendors spanned a broad variety – from a travel agency specializing in trips for families with children on the spectrum to ABA care, to financial firms helping for planning for the future, and a lot of them were very good about trying to also engage the Monster while trying to talk to us about their services… and all were very understanding when it was an instance of a geographic mismatch (ie, they provide services in NJ and we’re far from it).

And then there was the surfing.

IMG_0556So, the Monster was in the third group to go – the 10 AM group – and per the instructions, we made sure to be there extra early.  As you can imagine, the East Coast is not particularly known for its surfing in general, and indeed, the first few groups took a while to get the kids their three-or-so waves to ride.  The volunteers were wonderful in trying to keep him calm while they were waiting his turn, and got him into a life-jacket – which he’s acquainted with from waterfront activities at camp – and settled to wait for a ride.  And soon enough, it was his turn, and they took him out in the water.

Of course, though, the Monster loves the water…. but we had no idea how he’d react to being on a surf board.  Would he cause a ruckus?  Would he thrash and try to jump off?

The answer, in the end, was no – he seemed to relax and enjoy it, not even putting up a fight when the adult with him – Bucky – pulled him up onto his feet on the board and rode in with him.  He genuinely seemed to enjoy it and played along when they were back out patiently waiting for another wave to ride in.  It really is very unusual to watch him just relaxing and enjoying something and letting adults around him, especially unfamiliar ones, just guide him through activities like that…

IMG_0564 Of course, though, three rides doesn’t last forever.  Soon enough, they were back on shore so another child could have a chance to go for a ride, and the Monster was brought back to us so we could go enjoy the rest of the day.

One thing I do like is the spirit of the audience of parents watching the goings-on.  A crowd was constantly behind the tape watching the surfers, and every time a surfer caught a wave, regardless of whose child it was, the adults burst into applause and cheers.  It was a very, very positive environment, and very uplifting to be around.

But… I cannot, cannot, speak highly enough of both programs.  I don’t know how things are run everywhere that Surfers Healing does their programs, but: if you have a child on the spectrum and can get a spot somewhere that they’re running a clinic, do it.

As for us… we’re still weighing where we might try to get a spot for the Monster again next year.  While Ocean City is nicely in-state and where the wife likes to hit the seashore… I’ll admit that I’m more inclined to trek back to Belmar…

(And in a few days, I might even be easily persuaded to post video of the Monster riding the wave with Bucky… I did promise to share it with some friends/frequent commenters first…)

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