Play and recreation has many more benefits than just ‘down time’ for children with autism.
This weekend, a wonderful group of professional surfers and paddle boarders from California and Hawaii and Toronto gathered at Woodbine Beach in Toronto to provide a surfing experience to dozens of local children with autism.
The organization is called Surfers Healing which was co-founded by world surf champion Izzy and his wife Danielle Paskowitz. They discovered that their son Isaiah, diagnosed with autism, calmed down and was happy playing on the water on a surf board. They decided to offer the same experience to other families.
At the kick-off fundraiser here in Toronto, I was pleased to meet Izzy and to
present him with a copy of my book Challenging the Myths of Autism. He was a warm-hearted person who is doing all that he can to help families and their children.
Ann Hui, a news writer, reported on the weekend event. She interviewed me to discuss the benefits of surfing for the children. Although there isn’t scientific research to support it as a formal ‘therapy’, our discussion centered around a very important aspect of recreation: No demands! Just have fun!
Many children diagnosed with ASD are exposed to full-time therapy programs for more than forty hours per week. They are being asked to learn and to change for many of their waking hours. This is intense…for some, too intense.
Recreational activities like swimming, horseback riding, and even surfing provide
a time for kids to play and enjoy themselves without having to change, without having to achieve a ‘target goal’, and without adult demands.
When Ann asked me why this is so important, I explained that at the core of the challenges for a person diagnosed with autism is learning to form social relationships. And that perhaps the best environment to make this easier and most enjoyable is one without demands or expectations. Izzy and his crew of surfers aren’t trying to train the children to be surfers, but instead are focused on giving them an enjoyable, relaxing, and happy experience. I believe that this non-demanding attitude and activity opens up a space for the children to experience an ‘easy going’ relationship with an adult, even for a short period of time, which in and of itself can have positive benefits.
We can all relate to this basic truth: People are more attracted to and comfortable and trusting of unconditional love, acceptance, and enjoyable interactions as versus conditional, demanding, and judgmental relationships.
It is all too common for therapists and even parents to get so focused on the tasks and learning goals for a child that the way they relate to the child becomes more demanding and less fun.
The nature of the relationship becomes centered on trying to change the child, so we lose sight of the importance of acceptance.
It’s of course a fine balance between offering an unconditionally loving relationship to another while at the same time wanting to support their learning and development. Some wonder if this is paradoxical. Through IMTI program training, we learn that it’s possible to offer both and it seems that Surfers healing are also doing just that.