When the day was over a surfer named Mark said that the best thing that had happened to him was that a kid named Luke asked in his very own way if the two of them could be friends.
Mark, a veteran Jones Beach lifeguard, volunteered at the debut of Surf Pals, a new surfing clinic for kids with autism in Long Beach, New York. He took Luke out on a board. It wasn’t long before Luke came to find Mark. He wanted to go out again. And again.
At the end of the day Luke took Mark’s hand.
And there it is. The answer to the question that makes so many of us cringe.
Do autistic kids have feelings? Well, of course they do. Feelings for the water and feelings for people. Not to mention feelings for people who like them, love the water.
All too often, outdated diagnostic tools tell us this is not so. But one only needs to spend a day at the beach with kids with autism who are surfing to blow that myth out of the water, no pun intended.
It is with this philosophy in mind that Surf Pals was created. A new program based in Long Beach, New York, Surf Pals aims to do more than merely give kids a free day of surfing at the beach. It is hoping to create alliances – big brother/ big sister style -- between surfers and the kids with autism they will teach.
Like Mark and Luke, who got off to a great start.
The program debuted on July 16, 2007 with two dozen surfers, several master instructors and many volunteers – both locals and those who came from farther away.
And it also debuted with kids out on boards with instructors and big smiles from parents and friends on the beach. Competence was presumed. Instructors, parents and the kids themselves assumed that autistic kids can surf. And why not?
Surf Pals was created by Long Beach locals Jim Mulvaney, Harvey Weisenberg and Elliot Zuckerman. (Full disclosure: Mulvaney is my husband, Weisenberg is my New York State Assemblyman – and the state’s premiere advocate for the disabled – and Elliot, well Elliot is my dear friend).
Zuckerman, who runs a local surf school and has considerable experience surfing and teaching kids with autism to surf, also recruited those master instructors and other volunteers.
Among the volunteers who helped the kids learn to surf was Edward Bezkor, a clinical specialist of physical therapy at New York University, as well as Erin Komada, an occupational therapist who is also a former jockey and teaches kids with autism to ride horses.
Zuckerman and Mulvaney raised money for the program -- through the Nassau Suffolk Chapter of the Autism Society of America -- to buy five special tandem boards and life vests designed for disabled children. “We put out a request for volunteers to assist our instructors through Unsound Surf Shop and Long Beach Recreation Director Joe Brand,” said Mulvaney. “My phone was ringing off the hook with people just trying to help.”
Another event is planned for September 4. To sign up or ask questions please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And please listen to the August edition of my Autism One Internet Radio Show Maverick Mama, for interviews from the beach, including one with Zuckerman and another with journalist and autism parent Michele Iallonardi, who came to Surf Pals with her terrific young sons Jackson, Bennett, and Luca.
Barbara Fischkin is a novelist, journalist and non-fiction author. She is also the mother of a son with autism. You can visit her website here.