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Surf's up! Lessons open new vistas for disabled kids

/ Source: The Associated Press

The lesson begins on the beach with a youngster lying on a surfboard more than twice her size. After some brief orientation, the child, joined by a world-class surfing coach, is soon paddling about 30 yards into the ocean.

As a modest 2-foot wave appears, the coach and his student begin paddling furiously toward shore. In an instant, the coach eases away from the board and implores his charge to "pop up," and stand on the board. A shriek explodes from excited parents on the beach who scream with glee as the newcomer stands and rides her first wave to shore.

"I knew what I was doing!" exclaims 14-year-old Meghan Fink of Seaford, N.Y, who is vision-impaired. "I was able to stand up on that board and I felt the wind through my hair and the water came over my head a few times. It was just amazing."

Learning to surf is a rite of passage for teens in seaside communities around the world. But in recent years in communities from Long Beach, N.Y., to San Diego and Hawaii, children with disabilities ranging from near-blindness to autism have been joining the fun, amazing their parents, their counselors and themselves by hopping up on surfboards and riding the waves.

Such programs have been around for about a decade. No one suggests there are therapeutic cures amid the waves, but the surge in self-confidence is easily evident.

"It's a thrill of feeling yourself in a situation where you have control and you are working with nature to get some pleasure and enjoyment, and that's what surfing is all about," says Harvey Weisenberg, 50-year veteran lifeguard in Long Beach, who has a 52-year-old developmentally disabled son. Weisenberg, also a state lawmaker, is one of the local founders of a program now called "Surf for All," which allows those who never dreamed of surfing the opportunity to "hang 10."

Riding a wave 'nothing like anything else'

The group recently entertained participants in the Wounded Warriors program, which assists veterans injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The feeling of riding a wave is nothing like anything else," says Cliff Skudin, who like his brother, Will, is a professional world-class surfer; both are stars of the surfing magazines. "You feel weightless; it's an amazing feeling to be rising above the waves."

Cliff Skudin, who has a master's degree in physical education, is another Surf for All founder. The program started with five autistic surfers in 2002, but now boasts more than 1,800 alumni.

"Smiles on the kids' faces and cheers from the parents is all I need," Cliff Skudin said when asked to explain why he became involved. "It's a different feeling that they've never had."

He recalls working with an autistic child several years ago who had never spoken. After riding a wave with Skudin, the child arrived back on the beach. "He said, 'More, more, I want more.' And the family was just completely shocked."

"To see that was awesome."

The surfers and their coaches aren't the only ones benefiting.

"The adults that come just to see are moved, they have a different insight as to kids with disabilities immediately," says Mary Tatem, director of Pupil Personnel Services in the Long Beach school system. Special needs children from the school system have participated in a summer surfing program for several years, she said.

And the students? "They feel empowered because they're doing something what feels to them to be on their own."

Safety concerns are few

Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center, notes there have been other types of novel approaches in dealing with children with autism, such as swimming with dolphins, but he warns surfing "is not a breakthrough in therapy."

He also sees few pitfalls.

"I don't see any worries about safety; there appears to be adequate one-on-one supervision," he said. "This is certainly something that parents can encourage and support. Anything you can do to show kids a good time, that's wonderful."

Another Surf for All founder, Jim Mulvaney, explains the concept began about a decade ago in California, where noted surf champ and instructor Izzy Paskowitz began putting autistic children on surfboards in a program called "Surfer's Healing."

Now surf schools in many locations include instruction for disabled children and adults.

"It's just taken off," Mulvaney said. "People with disabilities often don't have enough fun. And they're left out of things and they're often seen as being disabled rather than being abled."

Lisa Innella, director of Camp Abilities Long Island, said she is barred by privacy laws from describing the level of blindness of the students. Most ambled across the beach with little trouble, although some used canes.

"I just want these kids to be able to go out there and try for the first time and enjoy themselves," she said.

Michael Taylor, 11, of East Meadow, whose mother said he has "not much useable vision," fell into the water twice before triumphing on his board.

"I thought it was pretty cool," he exclaimed. "The best part was the third time I stood up on a surfboard."

And what did he learn from his coach, Skudin?

"He told me to pop up. Yep, that's what I did."

John Gilroy, a 14-year-old vision-impaired teen from West Islip, is awaiting hip replacement surgery, but that didn't stop him from commanding the waves.

"It was really cool. It was my first time surfing and even though I can't walk right, I can still go on the surfboard and take the wave," he said. "It was really cool, a really big rush, I guess."