The Waves Don't Mind if
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."