Sunday, August 1, 2010

Surfing breaks the silence: autistic kids turn out in waves for program

From FloridaToday

If you get close enough, you will see plenty of emotion. Parents and volunteers will be overjoyed. But the most notable phenomenon will be the emotion from the kids participating in the second annual Surfers for Autism (SFA) event.

Many of the children, who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, have a history of showing no emotion and some of not even talking. But bring them to the ocean and put them on a surfboard and everything changes.

"Total transformation, instantaneous and complete," is how SFA communications director Dave Rossman described it.

"It's unbelievable to see a child come to the beach who doesn't communicate, hasn't spoken in a year plus, who didn't want to walk on the sand, to see a child go from that to high-fiving their instructor."

Rossman continued to list all the means of enthusiasm displayed by the children who participate in the SFA events -- children who are diagnosed with a condition known for suppressing expression -- and it choked him up.

"It's an amazing scene, to see something like that," he said. "If it doesn't touch you, you don't have a heart."

Rossman decided to leave a job as a journalist after he learned of surf buddy SFA president and co-founder Don Ryan's mission for the nonprofit and after he covered an SFA event in Deerfield Beach.

"Within five minutes, my objectivity was gone and I was completely hooked," Rossman said. His work for SFA is pro bono, and he makes a living as a teacher at several colleges in South Florida.

Rossman and Ryan put together three SFA events last year, and this year have eight scheduled from South Beach to Jacksonville.

Some families have registered their children for every event, Rossman said. They had to cap the Cocoa Beach event at 200 participants, keeping it manageable for the 300 volunteers to offer each child a great surfing experience for an entire day.

"The outpouring of support and generosity in your community is overwhelming to us," said Ryan, who lives in Boca Raton.

Ryan said he thinks as many as 3,500 people could pack the beach Saturday for this event, despite weather concerns. Families are coming from as far away as Texas, Utah, Arizona, New York, New Jersey and Maine.

Local businesses have donated items for raffles and fundraising, and local restaurants will be feeding the families and volunteers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that an average of one in 110 children in the United States have an autism spectrum disorder.

"These events are examples of inclusion at the highest level," Ryan said.

Lynda Ayers of Merritt Island will be returning with her 6-year-old son, Gavin. He was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome last year just before the event.
"He's so excited, he already has his bathing suit set out for Saturday," she said.

But Ayers said trips to the beach are not the same on their own and that Gavin responded to how the volunteers worked with him.

"It was absolutely awesome . . . He has a lot of anxious and anxiety issues, but the surfers were so patient with him," she said.

The involvement of the Brevard community has made it easy for such an event to succeed.
"People are so passionate about the ocean, it's a very easy market to get things done in," Rossmsan said.
"The ocean's healing powers are undeniable. When I'm surfing, whatever is ailing me disappears. It's the same for everybody. It's a great equalizer."

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