By: Alex Toth and Steven Thompson
One may think that children with autism, Down syndrome, or other developmental delays would be held back by their condition. Surfers for Autism is determined to prove that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Surfers for Autism is a non-profit organization in Florida that helps children on the autism spectrum learn how to surf. The organization was founded in 2008 in Deerfield Beach by President Don Ryan and a group of friends. Since then, they have travelled up and down the coasts of Florida with one mission, to show kids with autism that they really can do anything, even an extreme sport like surfing.
“A lot of people don’t realize what they’re capable of,” Ryan said. “And their capabilities far exceed most people’s imaginations.”
Over the past decade, Surfers for Autism has been hugely beneficial to the children that it serves. Ryan believes that the activity of surfing and learning how to surf is therapeutic for children with developmental delays like autism. He said that at every Surfers for Autism event, there are several kids who speak to their parents for the first time.
“Letting him see that he can do something that he doesn’t think he could do, and giving him the ability to be out here with the other kids that are like him, it helps him to see that he’s not different,” said Hannah Burke, whose son Hunter was one of the participants at Surfers for Autism.
Surfers for Autism doesn’t just help the children either. The parents who bring their kids also get to connect with other parents who have kids on the spectrum. Sometimes, it can even give them a second family.
There are people here who I can call any time, and we all help each other,” said Tracy Bastante, whose son was the first child in the water at the first ever Surfers for Autism event.
“I get to be with other parents and help other parents when their kids are stressed and having meltdowns,” Burke said. “They’re not alone. We’re not judging out here.”
The impact of Surfers for Autism on Florida’s autism community can’t be understated. Burke said that with the majority of social events being for “neurotypical” kids, its vital for children on the spectrum, like Hunter, to have places that they can go without being judged or excluded.
“It lets them feel like they can do it,” she said.
While Don Ryan is retiring from Surfers for Autism at the end of the year, he promises that he’s leaving it in good hands, so they can provide life changing experiences to hundreds of new kids for many years to come.