NARRAGANSETT — A bunch of athletic-looking people from the other side of the country showed up here yesterday to take a bunch of kids with autism surfing.
Parents said the effect was remarkable, even magical.
Kerry Schemck watched her son, Kameron, come in headfirst, lying down on a surfboard, with an enormous smile on his face.
Kameron’s 10, and his mother said he usually doesn’t like people to touch him.
The next time Kameron came in, there was a surfer-instructor on the board, too. The surfer stood up and hauled Kameron up by his arms until he was standing, too. His smile was at least as big as before.
About 100 people on shore, many of them parents, applauded as each child swooshed in.
The surfer-instructors yesterday were from Surfers Healing, a donor-supported foundation in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. It got its start when Isaiah Paskowitz, the son of the founders, Israel and Danielle Paskowitz, was diagnosed with autism. Israel Paskowitz, a former competitive surfer, discovered that the ocean relieved the sensory overload children with autism experience. So he took his son surfing. It has a profound impact on both of them.
Surfers Healing now holds “camps” on both coasts.
“If we can, we let go and they’re standing on their own,” said one of the surfer-instructors, Kamakani Froiseth, a lifeguard from Makaha Beach, Hawaii. He said that some kids are “kicking and screaming” to start with but, “You take them in the water, and their mood just swings, from hating it to loving it.”
Autism often involves impairment of the ability to form normal social relationships and to communicate with others, and leads to repetitive activities with a narrow focus. Autism has a broad range of effects, which can vary from minor to profound.
It translates into experiences like that of the DiSimone family. Their son, Anthony, spoke until he was 3.
“Then he gradually stopped speaking,” said his father, Richard DiSimone. He said the experience was heartbreaking.
Anthony is now a slim 10-year-old. He does not speak, and his parents say that he is in constant motion. That means keeping an eye on him and not relaxing. He pauses for a moment to shake hands, and is off again, down the beach.
For yesterday, his parents bought him a wetsuit for insulation. He got some surfing in, and his mother, Maria DiSimone, said early in the afternoon that he had been in the water for four hours and didn’t want to come out.
Paskowitz said he had to cut short a camp at Montauk, on Long Island, the day before because conditions were terrible: lots of wind, big waves and currents. On a danger scale of 10, he said, Montauk was an 8.
Yesterday at the Narragansett Town Beach, the waves were a bit over a foot high –– just enough to ride standing up on a surf board, and no bigger. The beach slopes gently, with no drop-off and no currents. There was a light wind.
Paskowitz said the conditions were perfect. He put the danger level at zero.
His advice for parents who want to replicate the “surfing camp” yesterday is, unfortunately, “Don’t do it,” because, “the danger factor is just so high.”
Paskowitz and the seven other surfers he brought with him made it look easy, smoothly giving the kids a good time in ideal conditions. He said, though, that the surfers have had years of experience and have dealt with 60-foot waves.
Even with all that, they focused a lot of manpower on the kids’ surfing runs –– one instructor on the board with the child, and two or three more on the receiving end, to catch the child and the board, separately or together. The absolute ratio of skilled surfers teaching children with autism has to be a minimum of one to one and often more, he said.
The DiSimones, who discovered Surfers Healing on television, have gone to three of the camps during the last five years, two in New Jersey and one in North Carolina.
She said the parents’ goal is to have Surfers Healing hold a camp in Rhode Island every year.
“This is huge,” she said.