By Anne Delaney
One day can mean so much.
Giancarlo Calderoni saw what the day could be, and he felt it. And Calderoni didn’t have a child in the water off the coast of North Carolina during those August days.
Calderoni, a 25-year-old in the U.S. Navy, was volunteering, helping out when he realized the power of Surfers Healing, a nonprofit organization that teaches people with autism how to surf.
“It’s a unique experience,” Calderoni said. “It’s helping out a community that doesn’t see a lot of assistance. It’s nice to see parents excited and be at ease. Watching the kids go from having so much fear to so much excitement, it’s really an overwhelming feeling and it brings a tear to your eye.”
Israel “Izzy” Paskowitz understands. That’s why Paskowitz, a Hawaiian born-and-bred surfing dude, founded Surfers Healing almost 20 years ago to help families cope with the reality of having a child with autism.
Surfers Healing travels the U.S. giving free, one-day surfing clinics, while at the same time offering the new surfers and their families a few hours of camaraderie and community.
Testing the Waters
Paskowitz’s son, Isaiah, was diagnosed with classic autism when he was about two years old. Isaiah was about four when he had a poorly timed meltdown on a Hawaiian beach one day with his parents. The boy was upset, and Izzy and his wife, Danielle, were unable to calm Isaiah. They didn’t know what to do. Izzy said he was embarrassed. He had another engagement and had to leave.
Isaiah couldn’t tell his parents what was wrong or what was bothering him. Isaiah, now 24, has limited verbal language skills. Izzy finally took action – by throwing Isaiah into the ocean.
“He popped up and he was giggling and he wasn’t screaming anymore,” Izzy recalled. “The thought was ‘let’s pursue this.’ The next day he spent the whole day swimming.”
Soon, Paskowitz pursued the spur-of-the-moment experiment, made it part of his life’s work and this self-described “nice Jewish boy” created “a surfing ministry.”
Surfers Healing began in 1996, powered by Paskowitz and a host of volunteers, many of them surfers with ties to Paskowitz’s late father, Dorian. More than 4,500 people with autism attended the camps in 2014. The number was about the same this year at 22 events, with one or two camps expected to be added for 2016.
The camps are geared for autistic children, but Paskowitz said an age range has not been set. Surfers Healing has accommodated a 9-month old and a man of 45.
“We’ll do the best we can,” Izzy said. “A 6-foot-3, 200-pound man, that’s my son.”
The organization started small, with a handful of children the Paskowitz family knew from Isaiah’s school. The experience of being in the water had the same effect on those children and Izzy stayed with it.
Paskowitz’s instinct to throw Isaiah into the water came from frustration, but science has shown water has a therapeutic effect for autistic children.
The “use of water activities or swimming with autistic children is believed to facilitate language development and self-concept, and to improve adaptive behavior and provide an appropriate setting for early educational intervention,” according to a Turkish university study published in Pediatrics International in 2004.
A paper by a trio at an Australian university in February 2014 writing on the effectiveness of hydrotherapy in the treatment autism spectrum disorders concluded, “the properties of water assist active movement, provide postural support, and promote relaxation of spastic muscles, improved circulation, and strengthening, allowing a variety of fundamental motor skills to be performed, relative to an individual’s skill level. Aquatic activities also provide opportunities for social interaction and play, which can facilitate language development and improve self-esteem, self-awareness, and sense of accomplishment.”
Paskowitz defined the effect more simply, calling it “for lack of a better word, something magical happens and they’re cooperative.”
Paskowitz said Isaiah goes into a Jacuzzi every day and the experience seems to have a similar effect as being in the ocean.
“It’s helpful getting through to the nervous system after a day of input and overload,” Izzy said. “When you have kids come down and get into the water, something has happened, and the ocean with its serenity and properties of being back in the womb and under water, there is a physiological change.”
Wanting to Help
Calderoni, who is about 18 months into his five-year enlistment in the Navy, volunteered at Surfers Healing camps on Aug. 17-18 at Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington, North Carolina. Calderoni was born in California, raised in Texas and he went to Florida to surf. He’s stationed at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corp base in Jacksonville, N.C., about an hour from Wilmington.
Calderoni went to Wilmington with 14 other volunteers from the Navy knowing little about Surfers Healing other than it was an organization that helped autistic children. The group arrived about 7 a.m. and Calderoni spent the day helping with lunch and assisting the young surfers getting them on and off the surfboards.
Calderoni said he received about an hour of instruction and orientation from Izzy Paskowitz on how to interact with the children. Many of them don’t want to be touched, and physical contact could result in a violent reaction.
“He was very good,” said Calderoni of Paskowitz. “Izzy was inspiring, the way he was so patient with everyone.”
‘First Family of Surfing’
Paskowitz’s background as a champion surfer raised in a surfing family set him up with the perfect support system to create Surfers Healing. Dorian Paskowitz, Izzy’s father who died in November at age 93, was a surfer and Stanford University trained physician known as ‘Doc.’
Dorian eschewed a traditional life for his wife and nine children. Instead the family traveled the U.S. in search of adventure and surfing. The family was called ‘the first family of surfing’ by The New York Times and they’ve been featured in stories and as the subject of a 2007 documentary entitled ‘Surfwise.’
Dorian Paskowitz established a surfing camp in the early 1970s. Izzy maintains the business, and he relies on surfing descendants of his father’s contemporaries to keep Surfers Healing afloat. It’s these professional surfers, a band of “bad pirates,” and a special group with big hearts who manage what at times can be an “overwhelming” experience.
Izzy Paskowitz described the camps as “extreme special ed,” because waves can be challenging and unpredictable.
“It’s being a little irreverent with something that is much more heavy,” Paskowitz said.
Many of Paskowitz’s surfing pirates have been with him for more than five years, and they have accrued on-the-job training with autistic children to rival specialists.
Once in a while, though, a person doesn’t respond. Paskowitz said there are a variety of reasons for the resistance. It might start with the parents and their fear for a child. A person’s individual diagnosis might also make it difficult or impossible for the sensory experience to be effective.
Paskowitz said on a recent tour of the East Coast, not one of 1,300 children refused to go into the water. Only one of 200 at a California camp said he didn’t want to go out.
The numbers, and the personal experiences, are more than enough to encourage Paskowitz even on the rough days.
“I want them to have done something pretty outside of their box, and to have that so they can draw on it to do other things,” Paskowitz said. “What a blessing it is to hear, it’s a pilot for everything, even if it’s going to breakfast as a family and overcoming the fear and anxiety of episodes or odd behavior.”
For more information on Surfers Healing, visit its website at: http://www.surfershealing.org