The Ocean is for the Children of the Spectrum: When Surfing and Autism Align
The ocean gives us a lot of benefits.
I’m just not talking about all the potential medical drugs that can be harvested from its biodiversity which could be the answer to the world’s major illnesses. Nor am I referring to the health benefits of seawater which can strengthen the body against viruses, low defenses, bacteria, and pathogens.
This is also not about how the ocean can be a stress-reliever attracting surfers who find riding the waves as a way to cope with the stresses of everyday life.
That’s because we humans have a “blue mind.”
According to marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols’s book, it’s the meditative state that sneaks up on us whenever we’re in or near bodies of water. This mindset is characterized by feelings of general satisfaction and happiness.
When we’re at sea or by a lake or beside a stream, our brains shift into mild attentiveness where the brain is interested and engaged in the water, taking in sensory input but not distracted by an overload of it.
Sounds to me like we’re just chilling. And in a way it is; being around water gives our brains and our senses a rest from overstimulation.
Surfing as Therapy
This is one of the reasons why we, surfers, love to surf. Riding a wave is a great stress buster. One feels grounded with nature. When paddling out to the backline with the frustration of the day urging you onwards, a ride on a wave can give you the stoke and a cathartic sense of release.
Which makes great sense to use it as a focus for therapy. I’ve written previously about how surfing therapy is being used to treat veterans of their PTSD. And the results have been promising. In fact, the Navy has been studying it as a way to see if it’s viable enough as a mainstream mental health therapy option for its personnel.
It is inherently physically and psychologically beneficial as a form of exercise, while unlikely to have the negative side effects often associated with traditional treatments, such as medication. Surf therapy combines factors that are important to mental wellness: physical activity, the natural environment, water, social interaction, and mindfulness.
According to an article written by Tony Perry of The Washington Post, this is Marine Cpl. Angel Lopez. He was injured in a motorcycle incident and is a part of a study on the therapeutic effects of surfing.
Photo by: Amanda Wagner/U.S.Navy
It’s for this reason that surfing therapy also works for children in the spectrum. Children with developmental issues suffer from difficulties in social interaction, behavior, speech, and language.
But when autistic children are in surfing therapy, they actually improve. There is more confidence, improved social interaction, an increase in communication initiation, increased verbal output, an improvement in peer relationships, and less aggressive outbursts. The weightlessness and rhythms of the ocean also help ease their sensory overload.
Here in California, the original surf camp for children of autism still continues its work that it started in 1996. Surfers Healing Camp has been helping children with autism gain confidence and calm through surfing.
Their success has set off similar surf therapy projects all over the country. There’s the Surfers for Autism in Florida, the Surfers Way in New York, and similar other projects elsewhere. In a country that has a child with ASD in every 68 American children, the need for effective therapies to address the needs of children in the spectrum cannot be overstated.
And the effects of surfing therapy does not only end at helping them cope with sensory overload. In a smaller study, it was found out that there was an overall improvement in upper body strength and cardiorespiratory endurance in these child participants. So there is a physical aspect too.
And it also impacts the parents of these children. According to the Surfers Healing Camp, parents are blown away by seeing what the children can do when they are surfing in the water.
When autistic children are in surfing therapy, they actually improve. There is more confidence, improved social interaction, an increase in communication initiation, increased verbal output, an improvement in peer relationships, and less aggressive outbursts.
— Derek Dodds, Wave Tribe Founder
All these positive impacts just goes to show how surfing is just more than a sport. Forget those stereotypes of slacker surfer dudes who do nothing but chase waves. Surfing has real health benefits that can be harnessed for the good of the whole.
But even more than that, it opens everyone to a whole new tribe. Autistic children are able to form new bonds with people because they share the same love for surfing. And that’s a major gold star for social inclusion.
Here at Wave Tribe, we love supporting similar initiatives aimed at disadvantaged children. As we continue making eco-friendly, sustainable surfing gear and products, we also recognize that there is also work to be done to educate more people about the value of a healthy ocean.
A healthy ocean means trash-free waves for our children to surf on. It means that it has robust and diverse ecosystems that are able to support our food and recreational needs. It means a resilient ocean against the effects of climate change.
So yeah, let’s continue on protecting the ocean—either through awareness-raising or reducing our carbon footprints by using eco-friendly gear while surfing. Let’s do our share so that more and more children of the spectrum will be able to enjoy healthy oceans and clean waves.
Because after all, children are our best hope for the future.