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.

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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.

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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.

"I want to be the strong dad. I don't want to be crying in front of the kids or in front of my wife. So really, I just bawled my head off in the water with Isaiah and rode a few waves and I felt better, and he felt better. And that's it."

That's it: Those two words led to what occurred on the beach after Isaiah was forced out of the water by his father. He calmed down and off on the horizon, he and his father surfed in tandem. Something soothed Isaiah that day. Not a cure -- simply a good time, a respite.

Paskowitz has since began running events for kids with autism all over the United States and overseas. And in most cases, it ends with the kids exhilarated, triumphant and floating on glory.

Surfing's Soothing Powers

Ian Rager, who showed initial interest in surfing after seeing a movie, later became less willing to try it out. He is an only child, and he and his parents had traveled for five hours from their home in Las Vegas and checked into a Best Western, just so they could be in San Diego for the event.

"[I] want him to know that he could do things," said Rager. "Because a lot of times with being the way he is, being a … high functioning autistic, other kids aren't always kind to you, and especially if he's not able to do something at school because he's gotten emotionally overwrought or something."

The sight of other children smiling as they mounted their surfboards also had no effect on Ian. That's because for a child with autism, facial expressions are like a foreign language. For many, registering the emotions of others remains a mystery.

The other mystery -- why is surfing so soothing to these kids? A possible answer was discovered about 120 miles up the California coast, right off Santa Monica. "Nightline" met up with Steven Kotler, a surfing fanatic and a writer who has thought a lot about surfing's ability to heal.

Kotler said that when he was sick with Lyme disease a few years ago, he was hallucinating and confined to his house. Then a physical therapist friend called him one day and urged him to go surfing.

"And I just started laughing. At the time I couldn't even walk across a room," said Kotler of his persistent friend's call. "[She] dragged me out to the ocean, and ultimately what I was thinking was, 'You know what? I'm going to kill myself. I can't get any worse. I won't be able to surf, but I'll be able to see the ocean one more time,' and it drove me to the ocean."

Good for the Brain and the Body?

As Kotler recounts in his book, "West of Jesus," his friend was right. Somehow he got better, and he believes it was the surfing; he believes the risk-taking involved in surfing does something good to the brain and the body.

"Dopamine is the brain's principle happy drug," said Kotler. "It is also pre-performance enhancing drug. So muscles move faster, as does the heart. Norpromine, another chemical produced while surfing offers a similar result."

"[It is] good to be a little scared, and even if it's not a real fear, really, really small waves, you know, they can actually produce reactions," said Kotler. "And just the act of paddling, if you do it long enough, like any other cardiovascular activity, will endorse endorphins. These are serious pleasure chemicals."

Maybe that's what was working on the beach in San Diego. It wasn't just the kids who were smiling. So were their parents.

"They get tears," said Isaiah's mother, Danielle. "They never thought their kid could do something like that, and they're thanking me profusely, and I'm like, 'God, don't thank me. Thank you.'"

It was also good for these parents just to be around so many people who understood. This extreme-seeming thing they were doing, letting strangers wrestle their kids into the sea, has a logic to it -- an autism kind of logic.

And parents like Paskowitz believe this logic is not understood by everyone.

"From the outside? [People think] they're retarded, that they're weird," he said. "That they're crazy. That the parents are sh---y parents and they let their kid run around on the cliff and dart away or steal someone's soda. All these things with autism, the way they look are all normal."

'After a Couple of Waves, He Got Calm'

And so, for little Ian Rager, who resisted getting into the water, his parents, like so many others, had no problem forcing him in. Why? "They lock down and they either retreat to a safe zone or push on through."

Ian was overruled and out he went, so far out that his parents lost sight of him. But what none of us on shore could see was captured by the cameras. He was with a volunteer named Josh.

"After a couple of waves, he got calm, he got really calm and just kind of kept paddling," said Josh. "So it was really cool, it was really neat."

Not that anyone could see that from shore, because they stayed out there a long time.

And what were Ian's thoughts as the waves pushed him back to shore? "Please take me to Best Western!"

So once was enough for Ian Rager. But he did it. And for a brief time, he rode the waves and floated on glory.

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