A television documentary in early 2008 inspired Julio Magrisso, Assistant Director for the city of Miami Beach Parks & Recreation Department, to pursue the idea of a surf camp for children with autism.
That spring, the department partnered with the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD), a support program, to host the first camp.
The idea was to provide a therapeutic surfing experience for children who may not otherwise be able to seek out such an opportunity.
According to the Autism Society of America, one percent of the population ages 3 to 17 has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a life-long developmental disability that impairs communication, self-control, social interaction, and learning.
After UM-NSU CARD screened and pre-qualified participants, the camp opened its doors to 12 campers ranging from 8 to 12 years old with high-functioning autism, pervasive developmental disorder, or Asperger’s syndrome.
Although dedicated research regarding the benefits of surfing for individuals with autism is scarce, parents and camp instructors attest to many positive effects, such as increased self-esteem and the opportunity to interact with others.
It is also said that some children who display repetitive behaviors and/or anxiety seem to be calmed by the ocean, which allows for increased attention and focus.
Surfing also provides a fun way to build physical fitness into a child’s life, and can be pursued as a long-term hobby or sport.
“The reason we do this camp is to really show the rest of the world that kids with autism–and kids with any disability–really are more ‘able’ than they are disabled. And this is really just an opportunity for us to work together with our other community supporters and dispel myths,” says Dr. Michael Alessandri, Ph.D., executive director of UM-NSU CARD.
Special-needs children are often challenged with myriad issues, ranging from social acceptance to limited opportunities to participate in recreational sports. This one-week camp provides a chance to surf, but more importantly, to be part of a class like any other kid.
On the first day, participants are evaluated on swimming skills as well as surfing practice in a pool. During the remainder of the week, the children ride surfboards, build sand castles, and enjoy the ocean waves.
The weeklong event also mixes in a curriculum that focuses on swimming skills, basic oceanography, meteorology, open-water surfing, and, most importantly, the children’s abilities.
The camp–now in its fifth year–has proven its success as parents witness the rewards for their children.
“It is so moving to see him on the board, and to see the look of fun and determination on his face,” says Hilda Mitrani, the mother of a camper. Mitrani admits she is in awe after seeing her son actually surf, and she realizes the importance of this milestone in his life.
Partners With A Purpose
One of the key components to the camp’s success is the continued commitment and collaborative efforts of those behind the scenes.
The camp provides a one-to-one supervision ratio, as each child has his or her unique challenges to which the instructor must adapt. In addition, the city’s Ocean Rescue Department allocates an area on the beach to accommodate the group.
“Watching these kids ride waves for the first time is an amazing feeling. It is so rewarding to see the smiles on their faces,” says Magrisso.
“At first, some seem fearful of trying something new, but our incredible city staff, the staff from CARD, and volunteers work hard to help the participants feel comfortable.”
The surf camp, which is made possible in part by the support of many local sponsors like Quiksilver, the Surf Rider Foundation, and the Autism Society of Miami-Dade County, is free to all participants.
From the first day at the meet-and-greet with staff members to the last day at the award ceremony, the opportunity for the children to socialize, interact, and be active is not only a fun experience, but also essential therapy.
“If there is any type of behavioral problem, the minute they are in the water and on a wave, it completely soothes them. It changes their demeanor,” says Cindy Casanova, Parks & Recreation ADA Therapeutic Coordinator.
Due to the program’s success, the city and UM-NSU CARD have decided to try to expand by offering surf clinics every other month for teens with varying levels of autism. UM-NSU CARD recently recognized the city with the “Outstanding Community Service” award for helping to provide these services.
Jackie Gonzalez is the public-information specialist for the city of Miami Beach Parks and Recreation Department. Reach her at email@example.com.
Start A Surf Camp
Looking to start a similar program? Here are five tips for a successful startup:
• Find the right partners and organizations. Contact a local center for autism for assistance
• Work with qualified and caring staff members
• Seek out sponsors
• Get support from the children and their parents. Make sure everyone is willing to participate
• Target medium- to high-functioning children.