Something About the Water
Autism and water. It has proven to be a magical combination for thousands of children across the country participating in a program called Surfers Healing. Last month 180 autistic children and their families descended on Narragansett Town Beach for a day that many found hard to put into words. Jim Hummel was there to capture it.
Click HERE to learn more about Surfers Healing.
By 8 o'clock on a Saturday morning in September the waves are slowly starting to build under crystal clear skies at Narragansett Town Beach. It's a good omen for hundreds who will arrive shortly for a day of surfing.
And while there are professional surfers here from California and Hawaii - the focus will clearly be on 180 autistic children. They and their families have descended on Narragansett from as far as Maryland for a program called Surfers Healing. It is the 5th year the day-long camp has been held in Rhode Island.
DeSimone: ``Everyone's been perfect. It's like we've had a Xerox of the day for the five camps. It's been the exact same day.''
Rich DeSimone's 14-year-old son Anthony was diagnosed with autism more than a decade ago. DeSimone listened to the same words all of the parents here have heard.
DeSimone: ``I was in complete denial.''
Hummel: ``Did it register for you when they said autism what you were in for?''
DeSimone: ``No, no.''
Hummel: ``So you had to do a little research on your own.''
DeSimone: ``Yes, but even with research it was denial. He had delay in his speech but it was... he's gonna talk, I mean who doesn't talk?''
It was the same year DeSimone found out he had lung cancer. The family hit both challenges head on.
DeSimone: ``We don't do the woe is me routine around here. This is our life, we don't project it on anybody.''
Desimone and his wife heard about Surfers Healing, a national program begun 15 years ago by Izzy Paskowitz, part of a legendary California surfing family. His own son Isaiah is profoundly autistic. The DeSimones took Anthony to three camps in New York and New Jersey. It convinced them to bring Surfers Healing to Rhode Island in 2009 and to raise the $10,000 needed to do it.
They had 50 kids the first year.
Hummel: ``It seems like a very simple concept but it's pretty deep too that the kids - the water seems to be the great leveler.''
Izzy: ``Absolutely, you hit the nail right on the head. It seems very simple, a bunch of rag tag surfers taking a few kids out and riding a few waves. It is insanely deeper than that.''
The Surfers Healing organization has it down to a science, bringing everything needed out on the water for the day. A year's worth of preparation here in Rhode Island goes into making for a smooth camp as the children are scheduled from mid-morning through mid-afternoon. There are toys, prizes, a lot food - and a great day on the beach and in the water for the families.
Izzy: ``I think autism and surfing, autism and the water are mean for each other.''
The day officially begins just after 9 o'clock as everyone gathers in a huge circle for prayer - including a Hawaiian prayer - before heading to the water for the main event.
Most of the kids go right in, leaving their parents at water's edge to watch and in many cases record the event. Some are a little more hesitant.
DeSimone: ``The scene is always the same and it happens a lot the kids sometimes have meltdowns going in the water. That's part of their life, it's not indicative of this day - it happens in their life. The motto of the camp is: Crying going in and smiling coming out and that's what happens. Trust is a big issue for us, particularly parents of children with autism. We don't just trust - we don't give our kids to people and say here they are deal with them for the day.''
Narragansett was Sherry and Chris Halucha's third camp in three days. The couple came from their home on Long Island with their son Benjamin.
Sherri: ``I can't even put it into words - it's such a special experience, it's very emotional, it's really incredible to be with others who share similar experience as your own with your child. Even once he has the life vest on he starts to calm down, and then as soon as he gets closer and closer he walks, he's calm.''
Jen Kinney brought her son Andrew from Farmington, Connecticut. This was their second year here.
Jen: ``It really starts when you come off the parking lot, everyone is very nice and welcoming - the food is free, they have free toys for the kids. The water is great, it's after the season so it's not crowded. And then the surfers they just really take to them - they take them out there, there's no pressure. And they take them out there for a good long time. It's not one and done. And they really take care of them. They don't really even ask the parents too much about them so there's no preconceived notions and they take all of their cues from the kids.
Hummel: ``What do you see when you're watching Andrew out there?''
Hummel: ``And what is it about the water?''
DeSimone: ``Boy I'd like to give you and answer. I don't knowm, but there's a magical element to it that affects these kids and you just have to attend one camp to see it. It's a calming, lulling, exuberance. I'm trying to search for a word. I'm at a loss. It's overwhelming. ''
Izzy: ``After they're out in the water, something kind of just magic happens. They're really riding waves, first of all, which is super exciting and amazing for the parents to watch. But I think they come out of the water with a sense of accomplishment. They're proud of themselves and it's something that they can do. I think it's very perfect for autism.''
Sherri: ``I think what's most fascinating is that after the experience that's when you really see the benefit, because he comes out of the water, he's happy, he's excited about it, he's talking about the surfer, he's repeating all the things that the surfer told him out there.''
Jen: ``Yeah, I think the waves, just the sound and the consistency of the waves crashing, it's just very soothing. He can just sit in the water all day. I think a lot of kids with autism take to water like that.''
DeSimone: ``99.9 percent of the time when those kids come out of the water, they're laughing they're smiling, they're happy. And the parents are crying, but they're crying tears of joy.''
Hummel: ``Final question, California Boy. How's the temperature of the water today?''
Izzy: Not bad - not bad.
Hummel: ``Mid-60s to upper-60s is chilly for you, is it not?''
Izzy: ``It is but I've got to keep going and we're going to finish this season with these great little waves at Narragansett.
And they'll be back here to do it again....next year.
In Narragansett, Jim Hummel, for The Rhode Island Spotlight.