Friday, June 26, 2009

Surfing provides a calming activity for kids with autism

From the Las Vegas Sun:

The roar of the ocean surf lures thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies to ride the waves. But many autistic children, like 8-year-old Alex Acebal of North Las Vegas (pictured), find the crashing waves a calming serenity to their normally jangled restlessness.

By the age of 3, Alex showed typical signs of autism such as failure to make eye contact, delay in learning to talk and throwing tantrums that went beyond the typical “terrible twos,” his mother, Shanea Acebal, said.

After being diagnosed with autism, Alex was enrolled in the school district’s autism program, but his parents were looking for other ways to break him out of his shell, his mother said.

Then she learned of Surfers Healing, a nonprofit foundation that runs free day camps for children with autism that allows them to ride a surfboard with a professional.

Israel “Izzy” and Danielle Paskowitz have run a for-profit surfing camp for 37 years. They started the Surfers Healing foundation and camp in 1999, after seeing the effect surfing had on their autistic son, Isaiah.

About 60 autistic children from the Las Vegas Valley are scheduled to attend the camp in San Diego on Aug. 5.

Many autistic children suffer from sensory overload. Simple sensations could overwhelm them, but for some reason, being on the water helped Isaiah to focus, Izzy Paskowitz said.

With Isaiah on the front of his surfboard, and his father steering from the back, the two spent the day surfing together.

“There’s something magical that happens that still, to this day, freaks me out,” he said. “It’s the surf of the ocean, but it’s really bigger than that.”

Now 18, Isaiah Paskowitz is surfing on his own and his behavior is stable enough to where he can be in public without having fits, his father said.

“I don’t think his behavior would be as consistent as it is now,” he said. “I know when he was in the water, that just helped him calm his nerves.”

Shanea Acebal saw a similar response in her son, Alex, though the first time at the camp was highly emotional for both mother and child.

“My son was screaming. He did not want to go into that ocean. He did not want to go with the surfer, and I was sobbing,” she said. “I was frightened for my son to see him crying.”

Alex’s mood did not change as he and the surfer paddled out over the waves to a spot beyond the breakers, where the water was placid.

They sat there for about 10 minutes and Alex showed he was no longer scared.

“We saw them paddling in and they were about to catch the wave. I saw my son’s face and he was smiling and he was excited. He was happy,” Shanea Acebal said. “When they came on the shore, he was calm, he was focused. Throughout the entire afternoon, he just sat still, which is very rare for a child with autism.”

More than 2,000 autistic children attend Surfers Healing camps on both coasts each year, Izzy Paskowitz said.

“Parents just have to let go and just let them try,” said Shanea Acebal, who helps the foundation organize Las Vegas families to attend. “There are parents who struggle on the beach and have a hard time seeing their child cry, but it’s worth it. If they try it once and they don’t like it, OK. But at least they tried it.”

Surfers Healing has teamed with Opportunity Village to raise money for the children with disabilities it serves locally and to provide autistic children the chance to attend the surfing camp.

The two charities are hosting a fundraiser from 3 to 9 p.m. on June 24 at Marie Callender’s, 600 E. Sahara Ave. Proceeds from a raffle will benefit Opportunity Village, and the restaurant will donate 15 percent of all sales to Surfers Healing.

This summer, Shanea and Alex Acebal will attend the camp for the sixth year.

Alex looks forward to surfing and on a recent family trip to Southern California, he was playing in the water and loving it, his mother said.

“He did ask, ‘Do we have a surfboard?’” she said. “He was in the water and he wasn’t scared.”