Powerful evidence that the ocean serves as innovative treatment
After a five-year wait, Hope Wolthuis finally hopped on a surfboard. The 14-year-old was in San Diego at a surfing camp run by Surfers Healing, an organization that exposes autistic children to surfing. Wolthuis arrived with massive anxiety, almost deciding to leave until a volunteer convinced her to try one wave with him. Four waves later, she jumped up on the board and rode solo all the way to the shore.
At age two, Wolthuis received a diagnosis of regressive autism, which occurs when a toddler, typically between 15 to 30 months old, experiences normal development patterns before losing speech and social skills. After a dozen years of therapy, Wolthuis is verbal and high-functioning, although she still endures challenges with sensory, auditory, and self-advocacy issues, which is why her mother signed her up for the camp. “She was hooked and wants to take surf lessons now. It was calming and fun for her and because she has high anxiety, she needs calming activities,” says Stacey Phelps, Wolthuis’s mother.
According to the Autism Research Institute, 30 percent of autistic children have moderate to severe loss of muscle tone, which can limit their gross and fine motor skills. Many also endure sensory problems, which can range from mild to severe. Surfing can serve as a therapeutic treatment to combat both of these issues.
“Several research studies indicate that hydrostatic pressure and water activities support improved muscle strength, balance and coordination, improve focus and attention, and can allow a child to have a better toleration of touch and temperature,” says Kimberly Williams, pediatric neuropsychologist in Great Neck and Brooklyn, New York. She adds that the light pressure of the ocean water on their bodies at a soothing temperature allows the students to experience a sense of comfort in the water when the pressure is removed.
Jacob Stearns, age three and a half, participated in a camp at Narragansett, Rhode Island, last year. “My son has moderate to severe autism as well as sensory processing disorder, Fragile X syndrome (a genetic condition that causes developmental problems), and verbal apraxia (a motor speech disorder). He is nonverbal,” says Katie Stearns. At camp, Jacob surfed out and right back in; “He was calm while he was out there and never fell off the board. I can’t wait to sign up for this year.”
Amanda Michelle Bowden’s son, Chris Bowden, age 7, participated in three Surfers Healing camps in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. “These camps had an amazing impact on our family. To go out to the beach and see my son so happy and calm and have such a worry-free attitude was the greatest feeling in the world,” she says.
The idea for Surfers Healing stemmed from a father and son surf outing founder Israel “Izzy” Paskowitz took with his autistic son, Isaiah. Paskowitz’s son often struggled with severe sensory overload. However, being out in the ocean with the quiet churning of waves calmed Isaiah like no other method Paskowitz and his wife Danielle had yet discovered.
Paskowitz, a former world champion longboard surfer, realized his life had prepared him to start a surf program for children with autism. His own father abandoned a successful medical practice in order to live in a camper with his wife and nine children (Paskowitz was number four) in order to spend every day riding the waves. The family’s lifestyle became a pop culture legend, spawning the 2008 documentary “Surf Wise.” Paskowitz began surfing himself at age six and discovered a natural ability for the sport. One year later, he began competing. Soon, he possessed a slew of titles from top-tier competitions and sponsorships from companies such as Nike and Hobie.
Things changed when he hit 30. Paskowitz was touring, but was not the same athlete. He began losing contests, but didn’t care as he felt they kept him away from home and the challenges of raising his son with autism. He also felt embarrassed and drank to escape. “I had to quit to grow up, be a better father and husband. It wasn’t overnight. It took a long time to stop being stupid and let my son enlighten me and let his purity change me into someone worthy,” he says. Part of this path of growth included creating Surfers Healing. “When I saw Isaiah in the water, he looked so pure and innocent. I wanted to give that same experience to others.” And he has, to thousands of children.
A 2015 study from the National Center for Health Statistics suggests 1 in 45 American children fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, up from the official government estimate of 1 in 68. The rising diagnosis numbers, coupled with the healing power of water, helps to explain the explosive popularity of Surfer’s Healing.
In its humble beginnings in the late ’80s, the camp began as a one-off event with 30 kids. Today, the group runs 25 day camps across the United States, Australia, and Mexico. Each camp enrolls a maximum of 200 participants. The camps book up instantly. “We often need to add multiple days due to demand,” Paskowitz says.
The benefits of activities like Surfer’s Healing and other surfing camps like the Autism Society of San Diego’s surf camp, expand well beyond helping the children. “We found these surfers take to the children and vice versa. Our volunteers spend time away from their families and make no money,” Paskowitz says. “But it doesn’t ever seem to matter to them.”
Paskowitz can feel the effects of the organization. Keeping Surfers Healing afloat gets easier each year; fundraising comes organically and continues to grow. This is critical, considering the camps are offered to kids free of charge. “I don’t need to hammer people for money. Everyone knows it goes toward these kids,” he says. “We make such an impact on the children and know what we do is important to their families as well.”
Hope’s mother agrees. “I am so grateful for Surfers Healing,” says Phelps. “They bring together some great people to give their time and energy to help our kids enjoy the waves and find some peace and calm.”