Surfing Turns Autistic Kids Into Rock Stars

PHOTO: Autistic Boy Surfs
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Shea Edmondson-Wood, an 11-year-old on the autism spectrum, has been living life in a "bubble," not interacting much with others and having a difficult time adjusting to the sights and sounds of his new home -- Melbourne, Fla.

He and his family moved to the Sunshine State from Cincinnati after his father lost his job.

"Shea kind of walks around oblivious to everyone else and has ticks, like he talks quietly to himself as he is walking and twirls his hands in the air in a circle," said his father, Craig Edmondson-Wood, 44. "He doesn't like the heavy feel of grass, and the sounds of bugs and birds bother him. He freezes when something freaks him out.

"He likes to go the beach," he said. "But most of the time, he digs big holes in the sand."

Autism takes a financial toll.

Shea's parents noticed that he liked to watch surfers and, one day, his father saw an ad for the nonprofit group Surfers for Autism and took his son to one of their events. The group caters to children with special needs, mostly those with autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, giving them a new sense of confidence.

The transformation was almost immediate. Now, Shea dons a faux blue mohawk and thrives amid shouts of "hang 10," "grab a curl, dude" and "gnarly."

Kids with autism age out of the system.

His first time in the water for a 25-minute session, Shea climbed on his knees on the surf board, lost his balance and flipped over.

"We looked at each other and said, 'Here we go. Will he like it or not?'" said his father. "It was a defining moment. We could hear our hearts beating, but he popped up with his fists in the air, 'woo hoo!' It was so awesome. He's absolutely addicted to it."

"Now he's a rock star," said Edmondson-Wood, who has helped his son set up a Web page, Puzzled Surfer, and a Twitter account. "There's loud music playing in background on speakers and parents screaming. We go wild and the kids feed on it."

Surfers for Autism was the brainchild of Don C. Ryan, a 51-year-old former sales professional and "surfer dude" whose friends and family has been touched multiple times by autism.

"We had the idea: Let's provide a day of inclusion -- a safe, judgment-free environment of feeding pizza, playing music and taking up surfing," he said. "Let's see what happens."

Ryan, who eventually quit his day job, had no idea how big his idea would grow. Just this year, the organization served 3,000 children at events around the world from Australia to Puerto Rico and numerous venues in his native Florida.

These events provide not only an opportunity to surf, but paddle boarding, live music, fire engine painting, games and much more. About 200 children with autism and their families attend each one.

"You put these kids in front of 4- or 5,000 people with loud music and everything going on and they don't have a complete meltdown," said Ryan.

"I think it's the water, but also the environment," he said. "These kids are incredibly connected and they are drawn to the water, and they look around and see their peers, and many are like them."

Thousands of autistic children go missing each month.

Autism spectrum disorder and autism are general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development that are characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors, according to the advocacy group Autism Speaks.

About 1 in 88 American children falls on the autism spectrum, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a tenfold increase in the last four decades.

Parents are asked to trust "a bunch of six-foot-two-inch, tattooed-and-covered-in-long-hair surfers," said volunteer Dave Rossman, 38. But word of mouth and social networking sites reassure parents.

No one can explain why surfing helps children with autism.

"That's the million-dollar question," said Rossman. "Truthfully, we don't care why it works, but it does -- balancing on the board so focused in the moment. We are lifelong surfers, and when you go in the ocean it has a calming effect. But maybe it's the parents cheering them on and all the rock-star pats on the backs."

"Other groups do tandem surfing on the board and the adults pull them up," he said. "But we stay on the board with them until they ideally get into their own wave and do it completely on their own. Owning it gives them self-confidence."

Rossman said he had seen "180-degree hard turns" in the personalities of autistic children after surfing. Such was the case with Shea.

"Prior to this, he would go out in water and maybe a wave [would] crash over head if he'd go out far enough," said Edmondson-Wood. "But he would go gingerly because he couldn't see under the water. He is so tactile and has to be able to identify things. When he steps on something, that unnerves him. To him, it could be anything from a shell to a sea monster."

A smart child with an uncanny recall and, sometimes, highly verbal, he tends to be isolated socially in school.

But on the beach, surfing, Shea is animated and excited.

Some of the children start just lying on large surfboards on the sand. Others go straight to the water.

"Some are really terrified and nervous," said Edmondson-Wood. "But the kids do it at their own pace."

"At school, his classmates kind of ignore him," his father said of Shea. "But when you watch the video of the kid in the blue mohawk surfing, it doesn't sound like the same kid."

Now, Shea as the "puzzled surfer" has a big Twitter following.

"It's like a huge support system," said his father.

But while the events are free, Shea's parents find it expensive to travel to events all over the state, so they have started a campaign page on the crowd-funding site, GoFundMe.com.

"We have been able to do some incredible things," said Rossman, including providing free water and food, as well as hotel discounts to offset those costs. But, he said, "we'd love to be able to cut checks left and right."

"It's a common story," he said of the children who attend the organization's events. "Once they are on the beach, you can't tell a kid with autism from any other child."

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