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Surfing with Autism

I pushed the child around on foamy shore wash and explained that I had come to beach that morning because my own 19-year-old son, who has severe autism, wanted to surf.
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This is a story about a little boy who has autism who rode a dream to find a little bit of heaven on a New York beach.

Alex is eight years old and lives with his parents in Chicago. Each summer his mother comes to visit a college friend, who lives in Long Beach, a small ocean community a Long Island Railroad ride east of Manhattan. There is a varying entourage always including Alex and his younger sister Madeline.

Some time this past winter Alex watched a cartoon about the ocean. No one can put a date on it, but in the middle of a Windy City freeze, Alex said that he needed to go surfing. His mom smiled; children often announce their impossible destiny; one day to be a cowboy, another day an astronaut, a princess or a president. Although Alex's midwinter prediction was preposterous it bore a heartening resemblance to "normal" behavior. Families affected by autism grasp at the thinnest of straws as handholds clinging to illusions of hope.

Alex is like many of the other kids ravaged by the autism epidemic: He speaks a few words, but rarely constructs sentences; he flaps his hands and has a tendency to "elope" (the technical term for scurrying away when mom has turns her back for half a second, resulting in a all-points-bulletins, posse formations and devastating damage to the parental central nervous system and cardio-vascular network that is indescribable to all of you lucky enough not to be in our "club").

Because this is a story about a little boy, I'll skip the larger debates about the cause and extent of the autism epidemic, except for a warning to the polluters who claim that autism is a only a "genetic" disorder -- code for "bad parents, good industrialists" -- "You will have a hard time convincing St. Peter that they really believed that mercury, lead and PCBs were safe."

Back to the boy:

I spotted Alex last Saturday morning standing on cheesy, stationary store boogie board in about three inches of salt water on Azores Beach trying to imitate the moves of the surfers working the break out on the foggy horizon. His left hand fluttered like the surfer's, dancing and darting for balance. His knees knocked and hips swayed.

I enquired if the child needed help.

"Thanks very much," said mom, with that heartfelt tone that is unmistakably Midwestern. "But, I don't think that would be possible. You see, he's autistic."

I grinned.

"Lady, I don't know how this happened, but you have tripped upon the most appropriate place for your son on the entire planet."

I grabbed the boogie board and waded knee deep. I pushed the child around on foamy shore wash and explained that I had come to beach that morning because my own 19-year-old son, who has severe autism, wanted to surf. At 6 feet 2, my Dan is a bigger challenge than Alex.

I added that we were also waiting on Dan's buddy Chrissy, (whose autism symptoms are arguably worse than Danny's) whose family had booked him a free surfing lesson right on that very beach. The lesson was scheduled not more than 10 minutes hence.

With each sweep through the water Alex became more confident.

I showed his mom my t-shirt emblazoned "SURF PALS".

Surf Pals is a grassroots group I co-founded to provide equipment and support for disabled children and the surfers who want to help them. It is part of the Nassau Suffolk Chapter of the Autism Society of America.

The t-shirt also says "Harvey's Kids," a reference to our co-founder Harvey Weisenberg, a septuagenarian lifeguard and New York State Assemblyman who has been the most effective government advocate for the rights of the disabled.

The logo is a silhouette of a little boy holding the hand of the third founding Surf Pal Master Surf Instructor Elliot Zuckerman.

"Surf lessons for autistic kids?" she said. "I never heard of such a thing."

"That's because you don't have waves in Chicago," I replied as I led Alex into deeper water.

"Who have we got here?" bellowed Elliot.

"This is Alex, he just dropped in from Chicago because he heard the break is awesome today," I said by way of introduction.

We swapped the boogie board for an eight-foot surfboard. Seconds later Alex was riding his first wave, a gap-toothed smile shining brighter than a pair of Escalade halogens tooling down Rush Street on a happening Friday night.

Over the next hour, Elliot and his crew of instructors had Alex, Chrissy, Danny and some other kids slashing through the water, laughing, spilling, paddling and riding. Nearby Elliot's "normal" (and paying) students were also learning to surf.

"Ever since we got to Long Beach Alex has been chasing every man, woman and child with a board, clutching and whining, 'surf, surf, surf,'" mom said. "I was afraid he was annoying people. We're heading back to Chicago this afternoon, so this morning I broke down and bought him a boogie board. I didn't expect him to use it but I thought he'd be satisfied if he could just stand on it. When we got to the beach he grabbed my hand and announced: 'Mom, Surfing is in my blood.' I don't remember the last time he got out a full sentence. I said, 'Alex, you are a silly little boy.' Ten minutes later we met you."

By the end of the morning, a crowd had gathered. You undoubtedly heard the cheering wherever you live.

"How the heck did you find my little boy on this big beach?" asked Alex's grandpa, a retired Illinois railroader.

"No," I said. "The real question is how did he find me?"

The answer is that Alex may be autistic but he that doesn't mean he's not smart enough to find someone willing to give him a hand. Even autistic kids can have their dreams come true.

(Surf Pals is based in Long Beach, NY, a suburb of New York City. On Sept. 4 they will hold the annual Surf Surfari for approximately 100 children and young adults with disabilities. On Sept. 8 Zuckerman and his crew will be in Dover, England, for "Breaking The Barrier," the first international Surf Pals Surfari. Zuckerman's surf school website is www.surf2live.com. Information on the UK event is available at www.lifeworks-uk.org. Surf Pals can be contacted at LBSURFPAL@gmail.com).