Surfing and Autism: Floating on Glory

"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.

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