Surfing teaches new skills to special needs children

FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla.- For many parents with children who suffer from Autism, a number of normal activities are usually impossible for their children.

Things like playing sports and other social events can be difficult for their children to adapt to.

But some parents from across the east coast, as well as those in SWFL are now seeing a different side to their children.

“He’s opened up more, he’s able to hold a conversation longer than just one line,” said Robert Wolf.

His son, 14 year old Jacob Wolf, lives with autism. He said his son has blossomed over the past seven years, thanks to a new found love for surfing.

“It’s amazing to see the transformation in him. That he can now ride a bicycle, he can Ice skate now because of the balance of surfing where he couldn’t do it before.”

Jacob learned how to surf seven years ago, with volunteers and event organizers from the Surfers for Autism tour along side him.

“When he first started he held on for dear life, to the board and didn’t wanna do it,” he said. “They pried him out of my arms screaming, crying. I had a lot of anxiety letting him do it… But 7 years later now, he’s taking the board out by himself and riding waves by himself.”

It’s an activity he says he would have never imagined his son doing.

Saturday afternoon, the tour returned to Fort Myers Beach for the fifth time, with 180 registered surfers, and almost 200 volunteers.

“It just opens up a whole new world for them that  they thought wasn’t even possible,” said Dave Rossman, Communications Director for Surfers with Autism.

The event pairs a child with a volunteer, and together, they go out into the water. They can choose to learn to paddle board or surf.

“You know, a lot of times, they’re told so many times what their child won’t be able to do,” he said. “Forget about this thing, they cant do that thing. So for them to watch their child surf which is an extreme sport., I think they have a moment of  ‘Oh my goodness! What else is my child capable of?”

“I’ve been riding since I was 5 in Deer Field… I feel like I’m flying,” said Damien Richter, a loyal participant in this event since May 2008.

Richter has since picked up surfing as a hobby, and won the gold medal at last year’s Special Olympics for surfing.

“It makes me feel happy when I surf.”

 

Rossman tells WINK News it takes careful planning to host these events, and volunteers need to understand how to communicate with children living with autism differently.

“We sit everybody down, all the volunteers and we talk a bit about Autism behaviors. The importance of looking them in the eye, take your sunglasses off, make the connection, speak slowly.”

So far, the response has been mostly successful. Hundreds of children hit the water, almost fearlessly.

Rossman said they all seem to enjoy it, and find it a comfortable environment.

It’s also created a judgement free zone, according to CEO Dan Ryan, for families and kids alike.

“For me as a parent.” said Wolf , “It’s like a family reunion every 3 weeks from April to November that we come to. We want to go because you just can’t wait. Every parent understands it, they all have a special needs kid so they all get it.”
The tour runs from April to November across the east coast and makes stops in 14 cities in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
 “It’s just been amazing for the whole family unit,” said Wolf. “As much as he [Jacob] gets out of it during the surf, I get that much out of it too.”
Rossman says every year is an emotional experience with new families, and watching parents see their children learn new things is a rewarding sight every time.
“You come out here and speak with some of these families and you hear what they deal with on a day in, day out basis. Just [seeing] the love and patience and just how much they do for their children, the sacrifices they make, it’s just really humbling and it just really inspires you to wan to do more.”
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