Surfing and Autism: Floating on Glory

Group believes surfing has soothing effect on autistic children

ByABC News
October 29, 2007, 10:04 AM

Oct. 29, 2007— -- 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.

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.