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Special-Needs Kids Ride the Waves With a Pro

Surfing legend Izzy Paskowitz helps bring calm to children with autism

Isabel Fattal
August 08, 2014
A Surfer's Healing camp in Montauk, N.Y., in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Surfer's Healing)
A Surfer's Healing camp in Montauk, N.Y., in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Surfer's Healing)

Kristin Kucia-Stauder remembers the moment she noticed that her son was so far out in the ocean that she couldn’t see him. “He was just a dot on the horizon,” she said. As she watched from the distant shore, she knew that she should probably feel nervous; beginning a new activity of any kind could be difficult for her son, and this particular activity was a bit on the extreme side. But instead, she was struck by an odd sense of calm.

Kristin and her son, Thaddeus, were participating in an event hosted by Surfers Healing, a nonprofit organization that takes autistic children out surfing. Throughout the summer, families gather on beaches across the U.S. and in Mexico for free, daylong surf camps. At each event, experienced surfers take hundreds of children with autism out into the ocean for the first time. The first Surfers Healing camp in 1998 took 30 children out; now, the organization works with about 4,500 children a year.

Surfers Healing is the brainchild of professional surfer Israel “Izzy” Paskowitz. While coping with his son Isaiah’s autism, Paskowitz stumbled upon a unique way to share his passion with his son and to ease his discomfort. One day when Isaiah was having behavioral issues, Paskowitz decided to take him out into the ocean on a surfboard. While Isaiah was initially anxious, the effect of the water was astounding: for the rest of the day, he was significantly more relaxed.

The son of renowned pro surfer Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, Izzy has lived and breathed surfing for as long as he can remember. Growing up, the Paskowitz family lived in a camper and traveled around the country, following the best waves. Despite this unconventional lifestyle, Paskowitz’s father did make room for some tradition: He made sure that Judaism remained a part of his children’s lives and often encouraged his sons to put on tefillin and to pray on whatever beach the family happened to be at on a given Shabbat. “He really wanted us to grow up very Jewish,” Paskowitz said of his father. “I look like a biker on Sons of Anarchy, but I was bar-mitzvah’d, and I feel proud to be part of the Jewish faith. It grows into a more spiritual connection the older I get.”

Still, surfing was the primary religion of the Paskowitz family, and after witnessing the effects of the ocean on Isaiah, Paskowitz realized that he was able to share his love of the water with his son after all. “It didn’t matter that he wasn’t a competitor,” Paskowitz said. “We were in the water together, and that was more important than any other aspirations or dreams of him up on a pedestal. All that stuff goes away, and then it’s the little things that make you so happy.”

Paskowitz understood that he had the unique ability to share the power of surfing with other families, and before long Surfers Healing was born. The results have been tremendous; while there is always an initial sense of anxiety as the children get into the water, the fear quickly dissipates and the children return calm, happy, and proud of their accomplishments. What’s the magic ingredient? According to Paskowitz, water is the main calming factor, and the inclusion of other elements, like the sun, the movement of the waves and the wind, only enhance the impact. Paskowitz says that the physical act of using a surfboard can also be “very centering and balancing” for many autistic kids.

Sometimes, the positive impact of the water on a child’s state can be almost immediate. Cindy Schwarzstein’s son, Spencer, 15, has apraxia, a motor speech disorder that interferes with his ability to communicate verbally. Though Spencer can string together certain words, he is primarily non-verbal. But after spending a bit of time in the water at a Surfers Healing event and practicing the words with the professional surfer who had taken him out, Spencer returned to shore with the ability to say, “I love you, Mommy.” While Spencer had been working on speech production for a while, Schwarzstein believes that his time in the water allowed for this sudden, extreme enhancement of his abilities. “Because it was such a calming system for him, he was able to communicate better that day,” she said.

Surfers Healing events are as restorative for families as they are for the children themselves. Danielle Paskowitz, Izzy’s wife and the co-founder of Surfers Healing, said that while the organization’s main goal is to take children surfing, “it’s also a whole day at the beach for the families in a non-judgmental situation, where everybody’s living the same life.” While other gatherings of families of autistic children might lend themselves to a focus on the negative, Kucia-Stauder, whose son has been attending Surfers Healing events since 2009, says that gathering to watch the children surf does just the opposite. “Getting together there, it was happy,” she said. “We’re out there and we’re looking at these kids, and it’s like, oh my God, I’m so proud of my child. You’re clapping for kids if you know them or not.”

Isabel Fattal, a former intern at Tablet Magazine, attends Wesleyan University.