This wasn’t some crazy, out-of-left-field idea.
Of course my son should try surfing. It made perfect sense.
Because there is one thing that my son loves more than Disneyland, and possibly even more than cake.
Summertime is swim time, and I have a happy kid if our activity somehow involves immersion in water – a pool, a creek, a lake, an ocean – any place my son can get wet.
At a water park or resort pool, my kid will wear himself out in a direct challenge to the short-sighted person who coined the term “Lazy” River – the pleasure of that fast moving current is wasted on those who sit idly in their inner tubes.
Living in a landlocked state, he only gets to the ocean maybe a couple times a year. But, we head to our local water park during the summer, where he declines the slides and splash zones and makes a beeline for the deep wave pool. Here, the waves come at regular intervals, and he eagerly anticipates each one. He laughs and laughs, saying “Swim in the Oh-shun!” before putting on his goggles to dive underneath or to float over the top as the wave carries him high.
The last few times we made it to the real beach, we had to fight hard to keep him safe – he always wants to swim out farther than I think he should. Even when the surf is frigid, my husband and I brave the freezing water in shifts – there is no relaxing on a beach vacation with my son. He loves the ocean, and everything that comes with it. Last summer, I giggled as my young teen edged further and further out into the waves to get closer to the girls on the boogie boards.
So, when I heard about Surfer’s Healing, I knew this was a foundation made for my kid.
This incredible group gathers volunteers up and down both coasts “to enrich the lives of people with autism by exposing them to the unique experience of surfing.” Surfer’s Healing was started by two parents who discovered that their autistic son found respite in the waves.
I have been watching for a chance to give my child this Surfer’s Healing experience for a few years – it is a bit of a trek for us to get there – and we finally got our chance last week.
I was so excited. There couldn’t be a better event, a more perfect opportunity for active engagement for my kid, for FUN made just for him.
Perfect. Except that the day before the event, when we got to the beach, my child – for perhaps the first time ever – refused to get in the water. Refused.
He got wet to about his knees, and that was as far as he would go.
He may have been hesitating because this beach was rockier than the others we’ve been to before. When the waves came crashing in, our feet were pelted by rocks and seaweed tangled around our legs.
But my son cannot use words to tell me why he was suddenly nervous about the water, so all I could do was guess at the reasons and reassure him with strategies that began as gentle persuasion and progressed quickly to irritated coercion. Did we really come all the way out here for him to decide he would no longer swim in the ocean?
I tried to encourage him to come in deeper, just beyond the breakers, where he wouldn’t feel the rocks and seaweed. He stood on the shoreline, ankle-deep, nervous and watching me, his boogie board upright in his hands. But he would not come in the water.
With very little skill and zero grace, I tried to demonstrate how to have fun on a boogie board. I finally tried to physically pull him in, but he is too big for me to do that anymore. My husband got into the act, but the more we tried, the more our kid retreated.
C’mon in, the water is fine! But we remained deadlocked.
I wondered if my enthusiasm for this trip had backfired, and all of my yabbering about this new “surfing” thing had only served to make him anxious. In order to prepare him, I had shown him videos and photos of kids surfing, and we’d been practicing with boogie boards at the water park. I was excited. Apparently, he was not.
This did not bode well for the very fun experience I had planned for the next day.
The following morning, my son was eager to return to the beach, but he was also wary. We signed in with Surfer’s Healing, set up our beach chairs and towels, and took a few minutes to greet the ocean. Again, he would not get wet. We showed him the row of surfboards waiting on the sand, and watched the surfers and boogie boarders out in the waves.
It should have been a beautiful morning. But by the time it was my son’s turn to get in line for a life jacket, his anxiety had sent him over the edge into a full meltdown. We stood in line on either side of him as he slumped on the sand and cried.
Isn’t this fun?
The fantastic thing about groups like Surfer’s Healing is that they’ve seen it all before. Not one of the volunteers reacted negatively to my son’s nervousness, nor did anyone second-guess that my child would indeed get on a surfboard, eventually.
As it turns out, Surfer’s Healing founder Izzy Paskowitz first put his son on a surfboard in an attempt to calm a meltdown sparked by sensory overload – so if anything, his volunteers are more eager to get the kids out in the water who seem to be having a rough time.
As we waited and tried to decide whether we should bail out, other veteran parents shared their children’s first experiences with us, and encouraged us that our son, too, would love it, if only he would give it a try.
My son is always cautious about new things – his instinct is to hold back – so, his access to “fun” has often come through what might look to outsiders like mean parenting.
But, we learned from the time he was little that if we made him try something “just once” – go down that slide, taste that new food, get on that roller coaster – he would be highly likely to go back for more….and more, and more.
I feel that we have an obligation to help him get over the hump of anxiety – especially when we know that it is something he will ultimately enjoy. For us, persistent parental encouragement and not taking “no” as an option has worked to break him out of his comfortable routine. If he never tries it for himself, he will never know if this “new” thing is indeed a fun thing.
I guess I see it as a momma bird firmly coaxing her baby to step out of the nest into the terrifying nothing of only the air below his wings, knowing it’s the only way he will learn to fly on his own.
Still, I wasn’t sure this time that we’d be able to get him past this high level of anxiety – and it didn’t help that I was fairly anxious about this experience myself – but at that point, the wonderful volunteers of Surfer’s Healing took over.
Within a few minutes, my kid had pulled himself together. He allowed the volunteers to put a life jacket on him, and we made our way closer to the water. He seemed to have resigned himself to trying this. Just once.
I was relieved to see he was smiling (just a little a bit) as he fought the two women in wetsuits who greeted him at the front of the line to bring him over to his surfing instructor.
All told, it took five volunteers to urge him into the water and onto the surfboard.
He finally got on the board with his tandem surfing guide – everyone applauded him and the volunteers for their success – and there he went, out into the sea.
I called on the waves beneath his body to relieve his tension and provide him that singular feeling of contentment that so many of the surfers here assured me the ocean would bring.
I hoped he wasn’t just out there hanging on for dear life.
It wasn’t until later that it occurred to me that my son might have felt like THIS girl,
whose (now ex-) boyfriend was so sure she would enjoy his hobby of base jumping that he strapped her securely to the ropes and, after growing weary of waiting for her to jump on her own, lovingly pushed her off this monstrously high cliff. Her scream of “I’m breaking up with yoooouuu” on the way down said it all.
After fifteen or twenty minutes of floating out there, waiting for the right wave, my son and his guide started to surf their way in.
I like to think we saw more of a grin on my son’s face than a grimace when they caught the wave that brought them into shore. I hope he enjoyed the ride; but he may have just been thrilled to recognize that he would soon have his feet back on the ground.
But he surfed!
He had no intention of going out again, and this time, we let his refusal stand. Strong encouragement to try something new might be good parenting; but forcing him to have fun again might have crossed a line.
After surfing, we hung out at the beach, surrounded by other families with kids so similar to our own – overall, it was a really nice afternoon. Once he was safe and dry, and had been congratulated with a few snacks, my son’s smile seemed to broadcast pride in his accomplishment and a remembered joy of being at the ocean.
Or was it simply relief that this crazy stunt was over?
I hope it was a little of both.
Through the remainder of our vacation, my kid delighted in swimming at the hotel pool. But on our ocean-side strolls, he would not let even his feet touch the water, walking in a wavy pattern on the sand, moving up the beach each time a wave rolled in.
The next morning, our son might have offered us a little clue as to why his anxiety was so high about surfing. I woke to him repeatedly singing one line from a song he learned back in preschool, the one about two little pond fish who, against their mother’s wishes, swim out to the sea:
…All of a sudden, they saw a shark!… ‘Help!’ cried the fishies…
I am not sure if my son enjoyed his first surfing experience as much as I had expected or hoped, but I think he had a little bit of fun. It was amazing to see him way out there in the ocean, and I am so grateful that Surfer’s Healing offered him the chance to try.
This might be a crazy idea, but I am already daydreaming about signing him up for this event next year. Maybe.
I would love for him to try it again.
ADDENDUM: Go HERE to see some much better photographs of my kid at this event!