Surfers for Autism is working small miracles everywhere it goes.
“There are many therapies for autism — cognitive, touch, equine. Not to sound crass, but we don’t care why surfing works. We just know that it does,” said Dave Rossman, the communications guru for the Surfers for Autism (SFA).
The group will be in Key West on Saturday, April 5 for its third annual Keys event at Higgs beach beginning at 9 a.m. And, no, the kids’ won’t be surfing per se, more like standup paddling with the help of a band of dedicated volunteers. While it may not mean much to the “normal” populace, its importance cannot be overstated for families that are coping with autism on a daily basis. Maryann Jackowski of Key West doesn’t count the first event she attended because both she and her son were too strung out.
“I think it was our first time in public after we got the diagnosis,” she said.
Still, there was something about the engagement that urged her to try again.
“Our first real event was in Flagler Beach,” she said, acknowledging that she was a complete, hot mess; she had questions, and her son was screaming, which is not uncommon for a child with autism.
“This gentleman that I met in the parking lot, who answered my questions, also took him out for his first surfing experience. And, I don’t know how to describe this, but my son just relaxed. And he had fun. And by the end of the day he was laughing, and before then he had been completely non-verbal,” Maryann said, emotion choking her voice. “He was screeching and whee-ing and clapping.”
Surfers for Autism, a non-profit, was born when a simple idea was presented to a small group of South Florida surfers by a member whose life and family have been touched by autism. The concept of introducing children on the autism spectrum to surfing took hold and the group began planning for the inaugural Deerfield Beach event in 2008. In 2014, there are 14 events planned.
The events are capped at 200 surfers, those with autism or other developmental delays, and already 100 have signed up for the Key West outing. The event is absolutely free for participants and involves an entire day’s worth of activity including music, games and food. Organizers have merchandise to sell to support Surfers for Autism.
“We need to raise money to get from beach to beach,” Rossman said, laughing. “But there’s a lot to do at our events. We just need good people to come on down and volunteer or just cheer.”
Those that have attended an SFA day say it’s a life changer for participants and spectators. Rossman, previously a journalist, chucked objectivity out the window – “it went bye-bye,” he said — and signed on to SFA as the communication specialist. He said it has a profound affect on participants, even after all the boards have been packed away.
“I’ve been approached by therapists and educators of people with autism that told me the kids are very calm for days after the event,” he said. “And it also gives the kids autonomy. The kids tell their parents, ‘Surf. Surf. I want to surf.’ And that they would initiate a conversation is really incredible.”
SFA changed Maryann’s life, too.
“I haven’t missed an event since,” she said, adding that it’s a welcoming feeling that embraces not only her autistic son, but also his brother and herself as a mom. The positive energy propelled her onto the water during her free time to “paddle for peace.” Eventually she was encouraged to enter a competition and now is a sponsored athlete making her way to places like Manhattan for a 26-mile standup paddleboard race.
“It’s so crazy. But it’s a direct result of attending that first Surfers for Autism event,” Maryann said. “Now every time I race, I try hard to place so that I can go up to the podium and talk about Surfers with Autism.”