Surfing and Autism: Floating on Glory

When Hal Rager took his 5-year-old autistic son, Ian, to see the animated film "Surf's Up," Ian's eyes lit up. "He cries, 'I want to go surfing,'" said Rager, "and we said, 'Really?'"

But six weeks later, when Rager brought Ian to the ocean, the movie, which shows elated penguins embracing the lucid Antarctic waves, was a far cry from the crowded California beaches.

"[He] was fine with everything, but then I think it was the sheer number of people, because crowds get him nervous," said Rager.

It may be surprising to learn that young Ian is not the first autistic child to take an interest in surfing. Many parents of autistic children have discovered surfing can be a valuable reprieve from a sometimes stressful life.


As they watch their children's rigid behavior and unyielding routines, the prospect of allowing them to experience surfing for the first time means a great deal. But as in most cases of autism, if there's one thing that's almost certain, it's that doing anything for the first time can prove traumatic.

'There's a Magic out There That Happens'

To be fair, serious surfing in serious waves -- who wouldn't hesitate the first time?

And so it happens. The children wail and flail as their parents place them into the arms of the volunteers who plan to take them out. No matter how gentle they are, it is nearly impossible to explain to autistic children that it will be all right. So at several points, the kids are physically forced onto the boards.


And as the volunteers begin to paddle the first unwilling child into the swelling sea, it's almost impossible not to ask whether this is really a good thing to do to these kids.

"Somehow, someway, there's a magic out there that happens," said Israel "Izzy" Paskowitz, the founder and president of Surfer's Healing, a surfing camp for autistic children. Paskowitz is also the parent of an autistic son, Isaiah. At 16, Isaiah can hardly speak, but at 250 pounds, he is enormously strong.

His size came into play one morning as "Nightline" witnessed an altercation between Isaiah and his father. Isaiah slugged his father twice, forcing Paskowitz to restrain his son on the tent floor.

Episodes like this show the raw truth of living with an autistic child, and Paskowitz has no difficulty admitting it. The tantrums, the uncomfortable outbursts -- this was never part of his plans.

'I Thought Isaiah Would Get Better'

Paskowitz was a former competitive surfer himself, and when his son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3, he found it hard to accept.

"He was my hopes, my dreams, my pro surfer who was supposed to be all that stuff when you were young," said Paskowitz. "And I just thought he would get better. I thought Isaiah would get better. And I did not like the fact that he never got better."

For a long time, Paskowitz simply walked away from it. When Isaiah was 13, Paskowitz admitted, he just didn't want to deal with it.

And then, by accident, Paskowitz discovered something he and his son had in common: the way the waves worked on them. They were at the beach one day when Isaiah was having one of his tantrums.

"[He] would resist going in the water," he said. "One fit on the beach led to me throwing him in the water, and led to 'Give me that … damn board' -- I put him on a board and we just paddled out, where we could be alone and have a cry."

And the tears didn't come only from Isaiah.

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