In 2008, not long after Damian Richter’s autism diagnosis, his mother Tracy Bastante heard about an inaugural surf event hosted by Surfers For Autism, a nonprofit organization pairing volunteer surfers with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about1-in-68 children have ASD.
“We strive to open up a world for children and their families that they never thought would be possible,” explains Dave Rossman, Communications Director for Surfers For Autism. And Tracy, a single mom in Deerfield Beach, attests to that! Just 5 years old at the time of the launch event, Tracy was cautious to let her autistic son take on an extreme sport in the choppy ocean alongside “strangers” but, after catching a wave, Damian’s face lit up like never before with an accomplished grin. “All you ever want is to see your kid smile,” Tracy emotionally proclaims of Damian finding happiness in surfing. “Surfing has given him an identity as a surfer and self-confidence. I love seeing where he came from and where he is now with the ability do tricks and handle his board without fear.” Now 15, Damian plans to participate in every Surfers For Autism event this year while also surfing with Special Olympics and other groups.
Surfers For Autism supports research, awareness and advocacy while also creating safe, fun and judgment-free social environments. “Surfers For Autism is a cult but in the best connotation of the word, with bonding of people with a like mission to get these kids surfing and give these families a day that they never thought they would have in their lifetime,” Dave says. “Parents spend the day with families that are facing the same issues so there is a lot of connecting and strength building from that. They talk about struggles and offer each other advice and encouragement. Many of our families become friends and spend time together throughout the year.”
Three volunteer surfers support each rider during a 25-minute session – one to choose waves, another to steer the surfboard and a third at the shoreline to help the rider back into the ocean for another exhilarating ride. The volunteer-run organization hosts 10 annual events which welcome 200 registered surf participants, 350 volunteers and, depending on the market, anywhere from 2,500-12,000 supportive beachgoers. Though not traditional fundraisers, events generate about $10,000 in donations to further the cause. The minimum age for participants is 4 years old, but ranges up to the mid-20s.
Surfers are known to have mellow attitudes and perhaps Surfers For Autism is channeling that mood. “While Surfers For Autism is just one therapy component for our families, we often hear of the calming effects lasting for days or even weeks after events and behavior improvements in school, plus the building of friendships which may otherwise be a struggle,” Dave shares. Studies have found that surfing decreases negative feelings and increases positive feelings. Parents have noted subsequent progress with communication, body awareness and other improvements. Surfers For Autism engages the whole family unit, so even siblings love these ultimate beach parties filled with entertainment, painting, gaming tents and more. For information, visit SurfersForAutism.org or Facebook.com/SurfersForAutism. And shop at SurfersForAutism.storenvy.com to benefit the organization.