Surf's up for children with autism 

Young children on the autism spectrum can benefit greatly from learning to surf as it builds strength and helps to reduce sensory issues
Surf's up for children with autism 
Cian Creed took up surfing at the age of eight. 

CIAN Creed always loved swimming, and when he was about eight years old his mother decided he should have a shot at surfing.

It was a success from the outset, and now, some 10 years later, Cian, who is on the autism spectrum, not only adores the sport at which he is now proficient but has benefited from it in a variety of ways, according to his mother Celene.

The 18-year-old, who begins his Leaving Certificate Applied programme at St Paul’s Community College ASD Unit in Waterford City next September, attended regular surfing camps and classes, learning the sport from Billy Butler, owner of Freedom Surf School in Tramore, Co Waterford.

“Cian is easygoing, is a placid and kind person who will talk to everyone," says Celene, who has two other children, Leah (13) and Ryan (16).

“He’s very sociable and is always willing to try new things." 

In 2009 Celene heard about a Surf2Heal camp that was taking place at the Freedom Surf School. Surf2Heal is a non-profit organisation which teaches the sport to children on the spectrum.

Surfing brings a range of benefits to children on the autism spectrum. Picture: Stock image 
Surfing brings a range of benefits to children on the autism spectrum. Picture: Stock image 

“I brought Cian along to sign up to a surfing summer camp, and he loved it. After that, we kept bringing him to Billy for surfing classes.  

"Over the years we attended a number of the camps. Cian loved the water. It got him out and about — he loved the independence it gave him.

“Although there were people there to help him, he was also able to do things on his own.

“Surfing got him out into the sea and he loved it.” 

Covid-19 has brought a temporary halt to Cian’s surfing, but he will return to the sport, Celene says. “I am confident of that. He has all his own surfing equipment by now.” 

She believes surfing offers a range of health benefits to her son. “Cian is getting exercise — for example, hoisting himself onto a surfboard, requires strength and agility.” 

Surfing also helps with her son’s sensory needs. “It makes him feel body-grounded and helps with his sensory disorder.  It’s a win-win, absolutely brilliant,” she says, adding that Billy Butler has always encouraged Cian to be as independent as any of his other pupils.

“There’s an extra effort made, but no discrimination. Cian is treated just like every other surfing pupil.” 

OBSERVED BENEFITS 

Psychologist Owen Jump, a researcher at the UCC Centre for the Integration of Research Teaching and Learning, is another keen surfer.

Some years ago, he was involved in a research project which investigated the benefits of surfing for children on the spectrum. He believes the sport has a lot to offer children with autism. 

“We spent some time with the parents of children who were attending Surf2Heal as part of a research project based at the School of Applied Psychology in UCC in 2015-2016," he says.

“As part of this, we interviewed parents and children about the benefits and observed what was happening. 

“Parents said children engaged with the surfing experience in a way they had not seen them engage with other sports. And in terms of outcomes, parents reported a reduction in sensory issues, a problem for many on the spectrum, and said their children were calmer and slept better.

“I believe there are clear benefits for children on the autism spectrum from surfing. I’d like to see government funding provided for the running of summer surfing camps for children on the autism spectrum.” 

FIRST WAVE  

About 10 years ago, surf instructor Billy Butler — he has been surfing for more than 35 years — began offering lessons to children with special needs, including those on the autism spectrum, at his Freedom Surf School in Tramore.

“The kids really benefited,” he recalls. “It was a whole new outlet for them. They loved the energy of the ocean and found it very calming and relaxing and de-stressing.

“They loved the tight feel of the wetsuits and being in the water.” 

Billy and his instructors worked with volunteers specially trained in working with children with special needs.

However, because the demand for staff and volunteers was so high — each child needed two instructors and two to three volunteers to work with him or her in the water — Billy decided to change the way he was doing things.

Instead of depending on volunteers, he began training the family members of children with autism both how to surf and how to act as volunteers in the water with the fledgeling surfers.

“We trained families in basic volunteering skills and how to act as surf assistants in the water,” he says.

“We did that for about three years, staying with the same group of parents and about a dozen children. By year three we were just supervising them and by year four they were independent. 

“They just hired the boards and went out surfing with their children.” 

Billy Butler’s tips for working with children on the autism spectrum

  • Introduce the concept of surfing by showing your child images of a surfboard and a wetsuit.
  • Visit a surfing centre and allow him or her to become familiar with the premises and to see the equipment first hand.
  • Encourage your child to become familiar with the beach where they will surf.
  • Check with the surf school as to when the beach is quiet, for example, early morning, late afternoon or in the months of September and October when the water is at its warmest and the beach is quiet.
  • Discuss your child’s dos and don’ts with the surf school in advance. Let the school know, for example, if your child dislikes noise, dogs or crowds.

Once instructors are aware of potential flashpoints, they can work with you to try to reduce the risk of something happening that might upset the child *Be aware that you will need a group of two or three people to accompany your child into the sea.

“This is why it’s so much better for family members to train as volunteers to work with the children and be with them long term,” explains Billy.

“That way, they can become like any other family and go surfing after a few basic lessons.” 

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