Autistic son finds peace on the waves

MALIBU, Calif. -- There's something incredibly calming about hearing the sounds of ocean waves crashing on the shore. Early Saturday morning, I was on the beach in Malibu, watching a group of locals surfing and riding the waves on a cold and cloudy day.

On the horizon, a storm crept closer to shore, the only disturbance on an otherwise peaceful scene. In a matter of hours, a storm of children were expected to crash Surfrider Beach, the site of the annual Surfers Healing camp. My 10-year-old son Ryan, most of the time a quiet, solitary soul, was one of those children.

Ryan has been to Surfers Healing, a surf camp for children with autism run by former pro surfer Izzy Paskowitz and his family, twice. Surfers Healing visits Malibu once a year. It has become a unique part of the surf culture in Los Angeles.

Surfrider Beach is already established as one of the iconic surf beaches in the world. The surfers who frequent the beach keep coming back because of the long, smooth waves that stretch through the Pacific Ocean. It has been made famous by songwriters of the 1960s and by extreme athletes of the 21st century. Because of the long history of Surfrider, Paskowitz insists on returning every year.

Surfing is as much a spectator sport as it is an extreme sport. It is a combination that makes for an unusual mix for kids with autism.

Autism affects one in every 110 children in the United States, according to Autism Speaks. Some groups use a rate of occurrence as high as one in 91. Autism is more prevalent in boys.

Most kids with autism like to keep to themselves. They have difficulty establishing relationships with others. In the case of my son, being the center of attention, a spectacle on the waves, is not a comfortable place.

Playing sports is also out of his comfort zone. He has tried soccer, golf and run track and field though Special Olympics and the American Youth Soccer Organization. Kicking a soccer ball, hitting a golf ball, running, jumping and throwing are challenges for him. But riding a surfboard was not so difficult. Seeing him surf is as much a joy for me as I hope it is for him.

After talking with Paskowitz, I found we have some things in common. Not only do we have children with autism, we both want our sons to be exposed to their communities. We are not comfortable, as parents, keeping our sons locked away from the rest of the world.

Paskowitz introduced his son Isaiah to surfing because he wanted to find something he could share with him. Once he and Isaiah started surfing together, Paskowitz found that it did more than create a bond with his son. It created a form of therapy for both of them. The motion of the waves, sitting on a board in the ocean, had a calming effect on Isaiah that no other form of therapy invoked. It also gave Paskowitz hope -- hope that Isaiah could find peace, even if for a short time while lying on a surf board in the middle of the ocean.

"I always wanted my son to be included to his best capacity," Paskowitz said. "There were so many things that he couldn't do. It's mostly the ocean and being in the water and feeling the waves and the sensation and the sensory aspect of the ocean.

"The surfing part of it is something magic that the volunteers and years of surfing on my part, it was right under our noses the whole time, that that was something that was very important to Isaiah.

"I knew they could do it," he said of the kids who would attend his camps. "I knew they couldn't do it without the right people taking them in the water."

That's the challenge all parents of kids with autism face: finding the right people to bring out the best in our children. Paskowitz has some of the best surfers in the world volunteering as instructors at his camps, a network built through touring the world and competing against the top surfers.

But it takes more than being an expert surfer to work with kids with autism. It takes patience and foresight. My son can throw uncontrollable fits if put in unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations. Being on a surfboard can be one of those situations.

Some kids with autism find the surfboards inviting. Others see them as a threat. Some kids cry and scream as they are placed on the surfboards by volunteers at the camp. Once they get in the water, though, they calm down. They ride out with complete strangers and wait. They take that peaceful journey into the ocean, seeking a moment of exhilaration. In the midst of the turbulent waters, these kids find peace. The crashing waves, uncontrollable currents, rising waters become beacons of peace.

Ryan's last trip to Surfers Healing was a quick one. He didn't do much surfing this time. He went out with an instructor, but didn't get past the first break. It wasn't his day. He came back in after a short stint on the ocean.

It wasn't the way I wanted to see his experience at Surfers Healing unfold, but ultimately it didn't matter. Ryan didn't want to surf, but that doesn't mean he didn't have fun.

A few of his friends from school also attended Surfers Healing. There was a time I didn't think Ryan would be able to make friends. There was a time when I thought if he could make just one friend, he would be all right.

Saturday, he watched one of his friends try surfing and spent most of the day playing with him. They were perfectly happy playing in the waves on the shore, running through the sand and laughing with each other.

Playing, running and laughing on the beach -- they are going to be more than all right.

Tim Haddock is a contributor to the high schools blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com, concentrating on northern Los Angeles County and surrounding areas.