Surfing the Spectrum offers life-changing water therapy for children with autism

Seven-year-old Hendrix loves watching the waves crash overhead as he dives into the ocean.

Being in the water makes him feel “calm and weightless”, according to his father Daniel White, who takes him to the beach up to three times a day.

“Hendy is simply the happiest kid in the water,” Mr White said.

“As soon as he knows he’s going to the beach or the pool, he gets super excited, jumps up and plays with other kids.”

When Hendrix was diagnosed with autism aged two, Mr White wasted no time in boosting his son’s confidence in the water.

Daniel White and his son Hendrix go to the beach every day.(Provided: Daniel White)

The next step could be a surfboard.

“I can push him in a small wave on a soft board and he loves it,” Mr White said.

“Again and again and again, we do it in the summer.

“I would like him to learn to surf properly, because I love surfing.

A dark-haired girl stands on her blue surfboard while a volunteer swims behind her and smiles.
Surfing the Spectrum aims to help children interact with the world around them.(Provided: Paula Ortega)

Life Changing Benefits

Water reactions like Hendrix’s are what put occupational therapist Aimee Blacker and disabled worker Tahlia Anderson into business.

Ms Blacker said seeing the results of water therapy led to the founding of a Newcastle-based company Surfing the Spectrum, a volunteer-run organization for children with autism and their families.

A man in a black top with a black hat in the waves with a boy on a blue surfboard.
Byron Hoskins says all kids should experience the ocean.(Provided: Byron Hoskins)

“We just saw the benefits of what it felt like when we worked one-on-one with our clients in the water, increasing their engagement, communication or motivation,” she said.

“[At the start] a child may not talk, or he’s really anxious — it took a long time to get him to the beach, he doesn’t like the feeling of sand, wind, it’s busy, it’s noisy, all these things .

“[Then they connect] with their volunteers, getting in the water, catching their wave then smiling, communicating.

Byron Hoskins, disability support worker and Surfing the Spectrum volunteer, said he’s seen “life-changing” benefits over the years.

“They pull a different person out of the water,” he said.

“They may have a greater attention span, they socialize, they talk, they react to the world around them.

A boy with red shorts sitting between two rocks at the beach.
Hendrix, 7, loves being in the water.(Provided: Daniel White)

The community unites

The organization is hosting its first-ever Gold Coast event this weekend, with over 60 families expected.

“Anything that brings a lot of families together so they can discuss their experiences…is really good,” Mr White said.

Ms Blacker said it was important families didn’t feel “judged” and had a place where they were “really welcome” to come and be themselves.

“Whether they have kids who are really excited to be there, or they have kids who it’s a really tough day for – they may be used to the community watching or watching or watching or judge,” she said. .

“A really, really important part of what we do is make sure they can connect.”

A young boy wearing an orange shirt and goggles rides a wave near the shore.
Children as young as five years old can participate in surf-based therapies.(Provided: Paula Ortega)

Safety a priority

After Hendrix’s diagnosis, Mr. White focused on his safety.

“I read early on that a lot of children with autism drown because they love water so much,” he said.

“I always had Hendy [in the water] very early, almost every day.”

A smiling young girl in an orange rashie on the back of a man who rides an orange surfboard on his stomach.
Surfing the Spectrum welcomes children with autism and their families.(Provided: Paula Ortega)

As the city’s lifeguard, Hoskins believes disability shouldn’t be a barrier to safe surfing.

“It’s important that everyone has the opportunity to be safe and learn to take care of themselves in this environment,” he said.

“We all live so close to the beach and the city is surrounded by beaches, water and pools.

Around 30 volunteers are expected to head to Currumbin Beach on Saturday for the Surfing the Spectrum event.

Ms Blacker says there will be several volunteers to focus on each child.

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