Ausnew Home Care | Surfing the Spectrum offers 'life-changing' water therapy for autistic kids

Surfing the Spectrum offers 'life-changing' water therapy for autistic kids

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Seven-year-old Hendrix loves watching the waves break over his head when he dives into the ocean.

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

"Hendy is just the happiest kid in the water," Mr White says.

"As soon as he knows he's going to the beach or the pool he gets super excited, jumping in and playing with other kids."

When Hendrix was diagnosed with autism at the age of two, Mr White wasted no time in building his son's confidence in the water.

A man and a child sitting on rocks facing out to the ocean.
Daniel White and his son Hendrix go to the beach every day.(Supplied: Daniel White)

The next step could be a surfboard.

"I can push him into a small wave on a soft board and he absolutely loves it," Mr White said.

"Again and again and again we do it in the summer.

"I'd like to get him to learn to surf properly, because I love surfing.

A young girl with dark hair stands on her blue surf board while a volunteers swims and smiles behind her.
Surfing the Spectrum aims to help kids engage with the world around them.(Supplied: Paula Ortega)

'Life-changing' benefits

Reactions to water like Hendrix's is what put occupational therapist Aimee Blacker and disability worker Tahlia Anderson in business.

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

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

"We just saw the benefits of what it was doing when we were working one-on-one with our clients in the water, with increasing their engagement or their communication or their motivation," she said.

"[At the start] a child may be non-speaking, or they're really anxious — it's taken a lot to get them to the beach, they don't like the sensation of the sand, the wind, it's busy, it's noisy, all of these things.

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

Disability support worker and Surfing the Spectrum volunteer Byron Hoskins said he had seen "life-changing" benefits over the years.

"They come out of the water a different person," he said.

"They might have a greater attention span, they're socialising, they're talking, they're reacting to the world that's around them.

A boy with red shorts sitting between two rocks at the beach.
Seven-year-old Hendrix loves being in the water.(Supplied: Daniel White)

Community bands together

The organisation is holding its first ever Gold Coast event this weekend, with more than 60 families expected to attend.

"Anything where you can get a lot of families together so that they can chat about their experiences … is really good," Mr White said.

Ms Blacker said it was important that families did not feel "judged" and had a place where they were "really welcomed" to come and be themselves.

"Whether they've got kids that are very excited to be there, or they've got kids that this is a really tough day for them — they may be used to having the community look or stare or watch or judge," she said.

"A really, really important part of what we do is making sure that they can connect together."

A young boy wearing an orange shirt and goggles rides a wave close to the shore.
Children as young as five can take part in the surf-based therapies.(Supplied: Paula Ortega)

Safety a priority

After Hendrix's diagnosis, Mr White focused on keeping him safe.

"I read early on a lot of autistic kids drown because they love the water so much," he said.

"I always got Hendy [in the water] from very early on, pretty much every day."

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

As a city lifeguard, Mr Hoskins believes disability should not be a barrier of surf safety.

"It's important everyone gets the opportunity to be safe and to learn how to look after themselves in that environment," he said.

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

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