In Praise of Autism Surfing Organizations
(For this article, Michael John Carley has interrupted his four-part series on sex. He will return with parts three and four soon hereafter.)
There’s a folktale somewhere about a wave that grew increasingly upset as it came closer to shore because it didn’t want to die. The wave behind it reassured it that yes, it would die, but that it would then go back into the greater ocean and somehow generate more continuous waves. As an allegory it’s no different, really, than similar lessons taught to us by major religions that guarantee afterlife. Yet unlike the fables within sacred texts, and barring the implied consciousness within a moving curl, the story of the dying wave is rooted fully in secular knowledge.
Call it neo-paganism, tree-hugging, or whatever you wish, but the substitution of natural forces for written doctrine has been made by spectrumites and neurotypicals alike long before the Polynesians carved the first surf boards from sacred trees. It’s a lovely, natural exercise. And this particular tale of the dying wave alludes heavily toward a belonging to life itself, rather than to limited, individual lives.
It’s also a theoretical contest about an earth – not a heaven – that attracts our curiosity. For it’s the oceans of this planet – not the terrain – that we still underestimate. Nothing in nature is a partisan world that screams for us, or our communities, to “be” one way or another. Instead, all nature seeks balance – a word not to be confused with “moderation” (the latter concept having revealed itself as a more and more contrarian, if not cowardly, fallback). But while our forests and mountains give awe, they do not move, or intimidate our imagination as the sea does. This mammoth force, whose underwater pressure, if harnessed, could fuel cities (if not continents), is still one we fear admiring, if not also embracing. With so much of it still unexplored, it is arguably our last frontier. Like love, the ocean is unstable, not stable, and dangerous. We who subscribe to no religious influence whatsoever can take comfort in our capacity, however unrealized, to employ the ocean’s potential as a healing strategy. And in spectrumfolk run parallels herein such as the accumulated traumas that are often there, within us, deep, in ways which no one understands. We have fears that are visible, and some that are not. It’s hard on our side, as spectrumfolk, to even see this; and it’s an even harder concept for the neurotypical world to swallow. A bridge is needed.
Cue the Ocean Heroes.
For many people on the spectrum, the enthusiasm of these autism surf people might initially feel threatening. At the starting gate, spectrumites both non- and über-verbal may find it impossible to rely on these sun-bleached salespeople, mouths curved upwards. For too often in our pasts, unconscious purveyors of snake oil remedies have asked for our trust, only to betray it through well-intentioned ignorance. These resentfully-named “beautiful people” may have invalidated the seriousness of what someone went through, causing that person, as time wore on, to shut off, and trigger more distrust whenever a new opportunity arose (to gain trust). Numerous times throughout our lives we may have faced such literal or figurative cheerleaders; those self-anointed instructors who do not believe that we should be allowed to refuse their happy medicine, or who would wish to deny us the right not to smile back. We sense superficiality. Somewhere, we also know that real depression, real anxiety, real anger, or real trauma can’t be remedied by a makeover.
But the surfers are different. They just are. They, and the product/remedy/medicine they sell, are true, and brave, and powerful, and good. Our skepticism is thankfully no match for a persuasiveness so rooted in truth.
Recently in Perth to keynote the wonderful Autism West’s wonderful 10th anniversary conference, I was extended an offer I couldn’t refuse. Western Australia’s version of Surfer’s Healing (CA), Surfer’s Way (NY), and Surfers for Autism (FL) is called Ocean’s Heroes. They work closely with Autism West and they invited me out for a day. They knew from my writing both that I love surfing, and that I not-so-paradoxically stink at it. And with nothing asked in return, Ocean’s Heroes were committed to making me better.
Background: I’ve actually gotten to try surfing in some gorgeous spots: Costa Rica, Todos Santos (Mexico), Morocco, and Kauai, where I was almost decimated when a current sent me hurtling toward jagged rocks. In Taghazout, I once had private lessons, but despite instruction to the contrary, I still grab inappropriate-sized boards for my skill level and head for the big waves, hoping to hit the lottery. I once half-joked to my wife that it was nice to know how I was going to meet my maker.
Look – long story short before I dissolve into poetica is that of course Ocean’s Heroes made me better that day. The board they trained me on felt as big as a cruise ship (easy to control), the waves were safe and easy, and they are fantastic teachers. I doubled my lifetime output in standing successfully, and for the first time reached shore by stepping off the board onto actual sand. But if my being a good student was the point of this article, I’d gag, and you’d gag. The point is that these people, in all these locales that perform this work, are special, special folks, and that their work is wonderful. The feedback I’ve always gotten from parents who’ve attended the seminars of all the orgs who provide this service – either on both coasts or abroad – has never been short of “my non-verbal son learned how to trust,” “my kid’s addicted now,” “my daughter who has crippling anxiety was liberated.” I have never heard a negative experience with an autism surfing organization. That’s not to say complaints aren’t out there, but please...can we fund this stuff rather than spend another five million on serotonin levels?
And the stories of kids who arrived at the beach untrusting, yet who quickly fell in love with surfing? Those narratives now seem countless.
Luke Hallam is 28, a Perth native, and by trade, a personal trainer who works with people with disabilities. “I just started working with this 8-year old girl on the spectrum when I was younger and had a lot of success with her. Well, her mum was a powerful autism mum here in Perth…” so Hallam soon had a lot of clients.
He thought about starting a non-profit, and contacted Israel “Izzy” Paskowitz at Surfer’s Healing in California, who was immensely unselfish with his time and gave Hallam the pointers he needed. Hallam then hooked up with marine biologist Sam Moyle, also 28 (and a third person, Tom Johnston, whom I did not meet) and soon they were off doing fundraisers like 20 km ocean swims (swim, tread water to vomit, swim, repeat), paddling 250 km from Hawaiian island to Hawaiian island, as well as getting the Australian lottery to fund their van, boards, wetsuits, etc. Now joined by Stephanie Hudson, 26, a physical therapist at a local hospital, they participate in whatever events they can: The local RotoSwim, or “Run for a Reason,” among others. For three years they have served 700-800 autistic kids through more than 30 events. They have even expanded from Perth to include other parts of Western Australia.
After our day on the waves, and over coffee, I asked “Why?”
“Surfing’s a really selfish sport,” said a smiling Moyle. “This way we give back.”
Hallam added, “And seeing the excitement on your face when you catch that wave.”
There’s also cases like the girl we’ll call Jane, who as Luke relayed, went through a period where she’d been suicidal for weeks. But: “The day after our event she went back to school for the first time in months. She’s never missed an event since.”
When the concept of autism surfing clinics was introduced over a decade ago, it felt like a no-brainer to me. The overwhelmingly positive feedback that would come from the first trials were mere confirmation. Why? Because we spectrumfolk love the water. Not only is it an arena where those of us with motor skills issues can actually feel graceful, but you could write multiple articles on how the bubbles created in the foam provide a sensory joy, how the force of the waves act like a deep-tissue hug, how the unexpected tugs at our legs create suspenseful surprise; and on a sadder note, that there’s a reason why so many significantly-challenged spectrumites are attracted to, but often drown in, swimming pools. The more time we spend in it, the more we seem to trust this “wrong planet.”
Back in the summer, I wrote an article on the subject of autism and travel. In it, I questioned if the sickness permeating modern-day Midwestern America wasn’t due in part to being landlocked. Well, during our post-surf conversation, Hudson chimed in that “If I’m having a (crappy) day, I’ll go to the beach – Even if it’s just a dunk in the water.” The problems she brings to the coastline don’t disappear, she said, but they’re mitigated by the greater power. The excess frustration that blocks our problem-solving skills is gone, to reveal only the core sadness or dilemma, if not also the capacity and confidence to resolve them. That may be true for any great act of nature, but all three of these St. Peters, these gatekeepers and guardians, agreed that on a bad day they know they need to go to the beach.
These wonderful people all over the world – not just my three heroes – are not “beautiful” by birthright. They have trusted/allowed the sea to change them, and so it is the sea that has made them that way.
Faith discovered will always resonate more than faith inherited. But with surfing, the parallel, as a belief system, has one tricky nuance. When in need, we instinctively look above, yet this massive energy is not above you. It’s something you feel underneath you; a near-Wiccan force (not too unlike George Lucas’ fiction) that you have to respond to whether you believe it to contain that consciousness or not. The scriptures of major religions, while sometimes beautiful, can also reveal bigotry and make demands that contradict science, if not knowledge itself. The ocean, however, has made no such mistake.
Later, back on shore and exhausted (you are having too much fun to notice what a fantastic workout surfing is), you may hear the words “It’s not worth it” regarding a present torment. Petty insecurities may have just disappeared and yet you don’t know where they went. You become freer to question once-rigidly-held, absolutist notions.
Take me for example: I’m normally someone who wants the kids he works with as a school consultant to become grownups who understand what they have, and disclose their autism to others with confidence. Jane, though, through her suicidal tough spot, was able to say “I have autism,” and yet it wasn’t enough. And so I am hypocritically just fine that she has abandoned that introduction. These days, a happier Jane greets others with the words,
“I’m a surfer.”
images by Charlotta Nilstoft