The Waves Don't Mind if You're Autistic

By PETER APPLEBOME

Published: September 15, 2004

Long Beach, N.Y.  In his room at home in Bedminster, N.J., Otto Loomis, 12, has a picture of himself at the beach with a bronzed man with long, dark hair. The man is Israel Paskowitz, a well-known California surfer, and the picture was taken Sept. 11 a year ago in Rockaway Beach, Queens, when Otto first learned to surf.

Otto and Mr. Paskowitz were back out again on Tuesday. The ocean was choppy, the sky alternating between clouds and sun, the wind brisk. It was a lovely day for surfing, for relaxing, for Otto and about 70 other kids to revel in a day's worth of simple, sensual bliss. It's not something autistic kids get to do very often, and for some, it's something they will never forget.

"Autistic kids love water,'' said Mr. Paskowitz, whose own son, Isaiah, is autistic and was splashing in the water here, surrounded by an armada of surfboards, surf instructors and other adult volunteers. "We're not looking for miracles. We just want them to have one normal day. This is their day."

If it wasn't your kids, and it wasn't their day, there might be something a tad too California about Surfers Healing, a foundation that Mr. Paskowitz and his wife, Danielle, formed to put on free events like this one for children and their parents. And Mr. Paskowitz and the parents have no illusions. This morning, at home or in school, the children and their parents will face obstacles just as daunting as they did the day before.

Still, sometimes one perfect day is the best any of us can expect, and surfing - from the bracing slap of salty water on wet skin, to the undulations of the surf, to the exhilaration of catching a wave and being swept up by it - turns out to be a wonderful experience for autistic kids, who are usually left confused and frustrated by an overload of stimuli that they can't quite process.

So Tuesday was a day for kids who rarely smile to beam like game show hosts. For parents it was a day to be with others struggling with the same issues they are, and to revel as their children experienced a day of joy and a.orgplishment. And for outsiders looking in, volunteers and helpers, it was a reminder of how large the circle has b.orge - the circle of parents who deal daily with problems that reduce soccer scores, tests results and other obsessions of contemporary child-rearing to triviality.

Autism remains not just a puzzle but a series of interlocking ones - not one disorder, it seems, but many that affect at least 425,000 Americans under 18.

Scientists and advocates disagree on numbers and definitions, but Spectrum, a new magazine for parents struggling with the disorder, calls autism the third most.orgmon childhood developmental disability - it affects one in every 166 children.

You could see that variety at the beach. Some children, like Otto, whose diagnosis is Asperger Syndrome, are called high-functioning autistics, children who can often rattle off facts and figures but have trouble making human connections.

Others are like Danny Mulvaney, who at 17 functions on the level of a 200-pound toddler. So, though he surfed last year, when the event drew only 12 children, he showed up Tuesday morning, seemed spooked by the surroundings and left without getting in the water.

Otto, on the other hand, was in his element. Like most of the others, he paddled out on his belly with one of the lifeguards or surfers trained by Mr. Paskowitz. Some children stayed down, riding the wave while lying on the board. Others rode in standing up or on the back of the professional.

Otto rode again and again on the front of the board, his eyes hot as coals, and when he hit the beach he thrust out his arms in victory, like an Olympic sprinter.

"It's nice for a day for him to feel he's not being judged; he's just being accepted for who he is,'' his mother, Claudia, said, watching from shore. "For one day, he can just be.''

In fact, it was hard to tell who was more grateful for the break from the daily routine, the kids or their parents.

"People say, 'How do you do this?' And the answer is you just do it,'' said Barbara Fischkin, Danny's mother. "But then you talk a good game, and you go home and cry."

Still, there were no tears on this day.

Danny, after balking earlier in the day, came back in the afternoon and took five triumphant rides.

Mrs. Loomis, looking out to the sea of boards bobbing up and down, was asked where Otto was.

"He's still out there,'' she said, "looking for the perfect wave."

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.org

 

http://www.nytimes.org/2004/09/15/nyregion/15towns.html

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"We each have our own way of living in the world, together we are like a symphony.
Some are the melody, some are the rhythm, some are the harmony
It all blends together, we are like a symphony, and each part is crucial.
We all contribute to the song of life."
...Sondra Williams

We might not always agree; but TOGETHER we will make a difference.

 

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