Ausnew Home Care | Surf therapy improves lives of children with disability, neurodiversity on NSW South Coast

Surf therapy improves lives of children with disability, neurodiversity on NSW South Coast

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The first time seven-year-old Pearl Fryer stood up on a surfboard was during a therapy session.

"I feel proud because I like myself catching waves," she said.

Pearl, who is autistic, is a student of occupational therapist Gabbie Johnson on the New South Wales South Coast.

Ms Johnson's surf therapy program in Broulee and Narooma is improving the lives of children with a disability or neurodiversity.

"Pearl's just so proud of herself every time she gets up on a wave. It's really nice to see that positive self talk," Ms Johnson said.

"Surf therapy is using the ocean and the adventure of surfing to be able to facilitate positive therapy outcomes."

A girl and a woman sit on a beach in wetsuits looking at the camera, smiling.
Pearl Fryer has been learning to catch waves with Gabbie Johnson.(ABC South East NSW: Vanessa Milton)

Beach classroom

Bringing therapy to the beach has been transformative for Ms Johnson's students and their families.

"In all those big surf schools, you're in a lesson with eight other children, and I don't think that's successful for a lot of the children we work with," Ms Johnson said.

"They need a more individualised approach if they do want to learn to surf or participate in the water."

Drone image of girl standing up on a blue surfboard in clear water with woman behind
Pearl has reached a number of her therapeutic goals during her surf lessons.(ABC South East NSW: Vanessa Milton)

Pearl's mum Paige Fryer said the surf lessons had helped their entire family feel more connected.

"It's really special to be together on the beach," she said.

While the outdoor classroom is a whole lot of fun, Pearl has also achieved some major therapeutic goals.

"One of the traits of being autistic is tippy-toe walking, so not only does surf therapy help with emotional regulation and so many other things, it also helps with balance, strength and coordination," Ms Fryer said.

"It's beyond amazing and beautiful to be able to watch Pearl grow with her surfing journey."

A girl and a woman are out on the water on a surf board, facing each other with their arms up.
Pearl is now able to stand and surf the waves, and has also grown in confidence.(Supplied: Paige Fryer)

From the clinic to the coast

Ms Johnson started the program after working with children in local schools and identifying a need for therapy to be delivered in a community-based setting.

"The clients I typically see are children with a range of different disabilities or neurological differences. A typical diagnosis would include cerebral palsy, or autism," she said.

"The main thing is that it's really meaningful for the children as well, this is an environment that's meaningful to them."

Each child is different, and while some do aim to stand up on a board, others engage in water-based play or spend time on the sand.

A woman in a wetsuit smiles into the camera lens with a beach in the background.
Ms Johnson says the ocean has played a critical role in her students' success.(ABC South East NSW: Vanessa Milton)

"One of the boys I work with drew the letter 'c' for his name in the sand for first time ever, in any kind of setting," Ms Johnson said.

"His mum was so excited … she was in tears, I was in tears, it was heartwarming to see."

In a region crying out for specialists, the surf program is one of only a handful of alternative therapies available for parents on the coast.

"I just hope [my students] learn that sometimes in life wipe-outs happen but we've got to get back up on our board and try again,' Ms Johnson said.

As for Pearl, there is certainly nothing stopping her from catching her next big break.

"Yeah," she said. "It's easy."

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