Immediately, I notice a problem. The surfboard I picked out for Lucas seems to be too small for his height. But as I’m about to find out, he’s a pro in these situations. He plops onto the bright green surfboard, and I, along with another volunteer, push him out about 15, 20 yards where the waves are breaking. Today is a typical South Florida April day: warm weather, warm water, no clouds in the sky. And there’s a choppy knee, perhaps waist high wave rolling in every few seconds near the Deerfield Beach pier where thousands of us are gathered in the name of autism.
As we wade deeper and deeper into the sea, I watch as Lucas quickly takes notice of the scene around him: he looks over his right shoulder where his older sister, Miranda is standing in knee deep water so she can catch him as he surfs in. He looks to his right, where there are countless volunteers pushing other children into waves. He looks to his left and sees he’s surrounded by the scene. At this point, we can’t even hear the crashing of waves or wind, only cheering, clapping, faint reggae beats, and volunteers repeating “paddle, paddle paddle!”
Now standing on our tip toes, we turn Lucas and the board towards Miranda and wait. Suddenly I spot a rideable bump coming our direction, and the other volunteer holds the board steady as Lucas lays in anticipation. The wave is small to medium (Lucas’s request) and I push the tail of the board with all my strength. Lucas catches the wave and pops to his feet in one fluid and perfect motion, taking it all the way to the beach while standing tall, standing strong and standing confident.
Alfie and Laura Fuentes, the parents of Lucas and Miranda, are both watching from shore. They stand out in the thick crowd because of their baby blue ‘Surfers for Autism Staff’ t-shirts. They’re beaming.
Lucas picks the board up, turns around and quickly paddles back my way again. There’s still 10 more minutes in this heat, and I’m certain he’s counting every second.
For the Fuentes, Surfers for Autism is a family affair. It’s hard to imagine a time when the organization didn’t exist, but seven years ago, on this exact beach, Surfers for Autism held its first event and Lucas, along with a handful of other children diagnosed on the spectrum, rode their first wave.
This was the intention of Don Ryan and a handful of other founding members in 2008. A lifelong surfer in South Florida, Don understood surfing’s therapeutic properties, and after spending time with friends and family who had children on the spectrum, he too thought surfing could help.
With the date set, Don pulled together a number of sponsors and the Fuentes family caught wind, thanks to a friend who knew of Lucas’s diagnosis.
“Looking back, it was a normal delivery, normal term, no complications with Lucas,” recalled Laura as I sat with her and Alfie a week before the Deerfield Beach event. “Developmentally, he was on target, and around 18 months he began preschool but started to regress in his vocabulary, lacking in all your typical autism traits, like eye contact…he began pulling back from the class. We saw a neurologist who basically told us he would get worse.”
More evaluations ensued that confirmed a diagnosis, and Alfie and Laura immediately entered him into programs the local schools offered. “We became aggressive,” said Laura. “We began therapy five days a week. That’s when everything really changed. It was helpful educating us too.”
“Because you have to remember, back then, autism wasn’t talked about much,” said Alfie. “Right after I found out, I was up all night on the computer researching how to help. I still am, to this day.”
Which isn’t as simple as it sounds, given that Alfie works 24-hour shifts as a firefighter, and Laura works full-time as a perinatal nurse.
But they both had April 5th, 2008 off and decided to give this thing Don and others were calling Surfers for Autism a try.
“We attended with a lot of hesitation,” Laura continued. “Lucas was almost 8 and his autism was at its worst. We rarely went out. Miranda’s 10 at the time and Oliver is 3, they both came to enjoy the day. By the time we arrived, things were full swing, with music, a huge red tent and even bean bags. After registering, some volunteers kneeled in front of him, said hello, grabbed his hand and off they went. He tip-toed along with them, and we watched where they teach you how to paddle and stand up on the beach. Within minutes Lucas was demonstrating what he had learned on the sand. He went into the water, and when it was his turn, he stood up on a wave. The sense of accomplishment on his face said it all and I will never forget it. The crowds cheered. I wept.”
Sit with Don and other volunteers long enough, and they’ll tell you stories like this from each event as Surfers for Autism made its way to different cities up the coast of Florida year after year, bringing surfboards, tents, music, and an atmosphere of pure acceptance.
The Fuentes family returned year after year, noticing the events seemed to continually grow in attendance. Realizing that many families actually follow the organization to each event, they not only wanted in; they wanted to serve.
Today, Surfers for Autism travels to 10-13 cities on annual tours of the state, typically from April until October. Crowds can range from 10,000 at recent Deerfield Beach events to hundreds at sleepy beach towns along the coast.
Most of the gear needed at these locations is hauled up and down I-95 by Alfie’s Ford Excursion. Show up early at any event, and you’ll see him leading a team of volunteers, setting up the equipment. He usually steers an ATV in the process with Laura riding behind him. At every event you’ll see her on a walkie talkie, charged with the task of feeding participants, their families and volunteers lunch. That’s 1,500 people.
And the Fuentes family will keep coming back. They’ll keep setting up. They’ll keep tearing down. Because Laura wants other parents to feel the joy she felt when Lucas first surfed. The joy she still feels when he surfs today. The joy of seeing therapeutic benefits in the process.
Alfie wants other families to have an opportunity to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of their child in a safe environment.
Miranda and Oliver don’t know life without volunteering at SFA, so they’ll keep coming back too.
And Lucas’s motivation is simple. Like so many other returning participants, he simply wants to keep surfing.
Cash Lambert is a senior writer for the Atlantic Current, and his articles have appeared in Surfing Magazine, Eastern Surf Magazine and ESPN Outdoors. He is currently writing a manuscript on the personal breakthroughs that result from the unlikely bond between surfing and autism.
This article was featured in Issue 35 – Summertime Fun and Safety on the Spectrum