This guest post is by Jaclyn Merens, Autism Speaks’ South Florida Regional Director. Jaclyn, who resides in Boca Raton, Fla., has two sons; her younger son has autism.
About two-and-a-half years ago I got a call from a South Florida surf club that they wanted to take kids with autism surfing and make it a fundraiser to benefit Autism Speaks. I thought, “This should be interesting. How’s this going to work? Our kids, with sensory issues, with balance issues, not to mention the language processing issues; how would they react to the waves, the sand, the noises of the surf, the beach and surfers who knew nothing about autism? How would the surfing community react to our kids who jump, flap, scream or have a meltdown?” But, hey, they wanted to do it and certainly a lot of our kids like the water, so why not?
The first event took place in Deerfield Beach in April of 2008. My son, Dan, participated in that event. I didn’t have a clue how he would react, but boy, was I surprised. He LOVED IT! He went out with his three surf buddies and never looked back. He rode the board in on his stomach, with a grin on his face that was from ear-to-ear. When he reached the shore, he picked the board up and headed right back out. I had never seen him so determined, so focused OR so proud of himself! It was a thrill to watch. My son had become a “Surfer Dude” – now he has his own surfboard, rashguard shirts, and a room filled with surf posters. He is now riding on his knee with one leg up, determined to stand. It is the only activity he asks to do.
As a result of the response not only from the families that attended, but from the surfers themselves, the Surfers for Autism organization was born. Since that first event, well over $35,000 has been raised for Autism Speaks. With Don Ryan leading the way, there are now events all up the Florida coast. Dan and I follow the surf and join them at each event. The smiles, the laughter, the connections and the tears of joy that are shed that day by the families and the surfers says it all. It is truly amazing to see what is possible and how the surf community has joined forces all over Florida (and now beyond) to teach our kids with autism how to surf. For many of them, this is something no one else in their family can do – which just makes their smiles that much bigger.
We were thrilled to be a part of the taping for the NBC Nightly News piece, featured below. In case you are wondering – my son is the older kid in the segment.