Surfing as therapy for kids with autism

Jonathan Dixon, a 7 year old with autism, is surfing the waves in Sarasota, Florida.

Dawn Dixon, Jonathan’s mom, first noticed her baby was extremely sensitive to new sights, sounds, and situations. A simple crib mobile sent him into a fit. “When I see him doing something that’s just fun and just being a little boy, it’s the best,” she says.

As Jonathan grew, so did his parents’ patience. “It’s not his fault, but it takes a lot of patience…and compassion. I mean, I can’t imagine what it must be like for him, not being able to process the world around him,” Dawn says.

Jonathan attends a private school in Lakewood Ranch, Pinnacle Academy,  that caters to children with autism. Teachers there use a variety of techniques to keep kids engaged. Jonathan has problems focusing and keeping his body still, so he also participates in occupational therapy.

Therapist Cara Putnam directs him to climb up a ladder, go down a slide, and then hop across the floor on some squeaky cushions. “He needs to complete a task from the beginning to end without getting distracted,” explains Putnam.

Kirstina Ordetx the school’s director and child psychologist, has also found a way to help children with autism and their families far outside the walls of the school.

CARE, a not-for-profit group started by Ordetx, has organized a surfing event called “Hang Ten for Autism” for the past three years. Volunteer surfers helped more than 100 boys and girls with autism ride the waves.

Ordetx says surfing is not only fun, but it has therapeutic value. “Their body has to be very aware and fully integrated,” she says. “And so, we see that children are very clear. Cognitively they’re sharp, they’re communicating better, making better eye contact, and really aware of what’s happening around them.”

Jonathan surfed the last two events and at this last event he received a refresher course from Benny Ray, one of the volunteer surfers.  Ray, who works at a local surf shop, but also going to college for occupational therapy says”I have a special place in my heart for these kids.”

He’s a boy of few words but later, back on the beach, Jonathan runs toward Ray and says, “Great surfing!”