Amazing Ways Surfing Changes the Lives of Children With Autism

Attend any surf event for children with autism, and there’s more than what meets the eye. While it may look like a day where children and young adults are simply surfing, there’s actually a powerful form of therapy taking place, something I discovered firsthand.

Amazing Ways Surfing Changes the Lives of Children With Autism

Surf events for children with autism and other special needs are a growing trend—there are dozens of organizations on both of America’s coasts that push children into waves, and unlike other therapies, there’s no copy required with surfing.

My volunteer experiences at one organization’s surf events, Surfers for Autism, had me asking one prevailing question—how is surfing therapeutic? I decided to find out.

One resource I used: Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do—published in 2014—by author Wallace J. Nichols, a scientist/researcher.

In the book, Nichols uses his own findings as well as other research to explain the ocean’s untapped therapeutic power. His book explains that because water is visually stimulating, it satisfies children’s sensory needs. When water, according to the book, surrounds the body, it can soothe and calm, which feels like “the ultimate hug.”

He also says that when someone is surfing, there’s proof that the brain undergoes a rewiring of sorts, with “blood flowing to crucial neurons and the reshaping of abnormal structures in the front brain.” On a behavioral level, instructing a child with autism to stand on a surfboard as a wave comes requires him/her to forget all anxieties and focus on that singular goal at that moment.

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While interviewing families at surf events for a book of my own called Waves of Healing, I discovered other ways surfing can benefit children with autism.

Attend any surf therapy event, and you’ll likely see children diagnosed as “nonverbal” enunciating and speaking words after surfing; children who are not receptive to touch were able to hold hands with volunteers as they wade into the water; children interacting with others who are the same age and have a similar diagnosis; children cheering at their own personal accomplishment of riding a wave.

Surfing also helps increase coordination, balance, confidence, and provides an identity to latch onto. Plus, at these events, there’s usually a massive cheering section on the sand that helps jumpstart the therapeutic process.

Not only does surfing sometimes help children on the spectrum; it also provides parents, siblings and volunteers a much-needed community, born from saltwater and surfboards where they can all find friendship, commonality, and advice. As I detail in Waves of Healing, it’s where I made lifelong friendships. And I’m certainly not the only one.

This article was featured in Issue 92 – Developing Social Skills for Life

Cash Lambert

Cash Lambert is the author of Waves of Healing: How Surfing Changes the Lives of Children with Autism. A former Editor for Hawaii’s Freesurf Magazine, he currently lives on Oahu’s North Shore. His articles have been featured in ESPN Outdoors, Surfing Magazine, Eastern Surf Magazine, the Outdoor Channel, Surfline, Flux and more. He served as a volunteer and surf instructor with Surfers for Autism for four years. Waves of Healing: How Surfing Changes the Lives of Children with Autism is available internationally at bookstores, including Barnes and Noble and Amazon. Instagram: