The benefits of water and surfing for children with autism are manifold.
Water calms them; it also allows the sensation of deep pressure on their bodies — something which is proven to be therapeutic; it allows the children a chance to socialise; and most importantly, it’s plain old fun.
“Kids with autism, they just don’t get to have enough fun,” says Nollaig Hayes, mother of 10-year-old Sean.
The whole precarious act of trying to balance on a board is a form of occupational therapy for the left and right hand side of their brain while also developing their sense of body and place, as this can be problematic.
“The children benefit so much from surfing. They just get the fun and the sense of calm from being in water, yet there is all this extra therapeutic work going on that they’re not aware of. There is such a need for more opportunities like this,” said Nollaig.
By this, she means Surf2Heal camps — an Irish network of camps inspired by Surfers Healing camps in the US.
First set up five years ago in Garrettstown, West Cork, by herself and Jon and Alayne Hynes, who once owned GTown Surf School, they have now spread to Inchydoney in West Cork; Banna Beach in Kerry; Fanore in Co Clare; and to Strandhill in Sligo.
There are about 10 children at each surfing camp session with three to four volunteers going into the water with each child.
“In the past few weeks, I’ve seen a kid, whose mum doesn’t like the water, race out of the water to hug her mum before running back in. It was just this big spontaneous hug from a little girl who had never spontaneously shown affection like that before. It was incredible to see,” she said. “And then there was another boy who ran out of the water looking to give a high five to someone. He’d never done anything like this before.”
The Inchydoney camp is run by staff from Co-Action and their clinical psychologist was out with the children last week. So impressed was he that he is now recommending to parents of children with autism that they should try and get their kids out with a board once a week.
The last of this year’s camps — which count Cork-based Ernest J Cantillon Solicitors among their sponsors — has just drawn to a close in Co Kerry but Surf2Heal and organiser Virginie Laveau are looking for more volunteers for next year. With 3-4 volunteers needed per child, the camps are labour intensive.
If you sign up to volunteer, Surf2Heal will provide training and you don’t need to be an ace surfer. The children never go out beyond thigh-high water.
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