Surfing the Spectrum is Changing Lives with Surf Therapy

November 30, 2021 10 min read

Surfing the Spectrum is Changing Lives with Surf Therapy

It’s a cold and blustery morning in Yamba, NSW. The team at Surfing the Spectrum have just arrived at Turners Beach for one of their surf events and everyone is already drenched. The surf is wild and a little unruly, and it’s one of those days that you’d rather just stay in bed.

Yet, there is still a buzz in the air. Organizers are pulling softboards out of trailers, brightly coloured rash vests are being hung along the fence line and volunteers bustle around under the gazebo, partly to stay dry, partly to make sure the sign-up forms are ready, and all the pre-event checks are done. 

It’s the first time we’ve been to an event like this – a morning filled with introducing autistic kids to surfing, some who’d never been in the ocean before. The idea of using surfing as therapy as always appealed to us as surfers, but never had we seen it in practice, fulfilling a need that was so obviously there, but so seldom seen or catered for.

It was the also the first time we met Surfing the Spectrums co-founders, Aimee Blacker and Tahlia Anderson. And before we knew it, we had our rash vests on and were getting briefed by Aimee, a paediatric occupational therapist by trade, and of course, long time surfer. The learning curve was massive, a 15-minute download understanding as much as we could about how kids with autism perceive and experience life. Dealing with sensory challenges like sound and texture and touch all heightened and amplified.

Moments later the first group of kids approached the sand. Some running towards the boards strewn across the beach and embracing the prospect of fun with open arms. While others dragged their feet, hidden behind mum on a slow and considered meander down to the water’s edge. Some dived in straight away, while others processed the situation for 30 minutes or more, before ultimately dipping their toes in the water.

But then it happens. The first wave. The first feeling of forward motion, riding a board towards the beach. And the moment we realise why we’re there. It’s the smiles! The expression of joy that comes from the simple pleasure (and privilege) of riding a wave in the ocean. And after a little while, it all sinks in. While we might be there to help impact these young kids’ life with an opportunity to surf together… it’s us who leave impacted, hearts filled after seeing the stoke firsthand and hearing the chants of “more,” “more,” after every wave!

Back in the carpark the volunteers and surfers are exhausted, but everyone is packing up with cheesy grins on their faces… no one is really saying much, the language of sharing-the-stoke seems to speak for itself.

After months of staying in touch and their surf events being on hold due to Covid restrictions, Surfing the Spectrum is ready to go again this summer. We took the opportunity to catch up with Aimee and dig a little deeper into the mechanics of running an organisation like Surfing the Spectrum. Enjoy the interview!

Your (Tahlia and Aimee) collective skill sets are so complimentary and your shared passion around surf therapy is obvious – so how did the idea of starting STS come to fruition?

STS really grew out of community and from the request of the surfing community here in Newcastle. Surfer’s For Autism, an organisation from the US first came to Nobby’s Beach back in about 2012. We both volunteered at these events with the local surf school as surf coaches.

When these days couldn’t continue, we decided to put something together on behalf of the local surf school. It sold out in 15 minutes and on the day had double the number of volunteers we needed (we still do at each event!). We realised what great unmet needs were present on in our local community. Both within the disability community with regards to inclusion to access, as well as limited opportunities for the surfing community to give back.

From there our growth has been steady and considered as we move out to other towns in NSW and QLD to work together with community groups to deliver events.

Where did your passion for using nature as an alternative therapeutic tool come from? And how did you start to correlate the positive results in the early stages?

I would say that this passion is something that has grown overtime. Both of us has experience in the disability sector as an occupational therapist and support worker. We have had opportunities to work with clients across a range of settings and both found the full bodied and immersive experience of the ocean was one that appeared to have positive and rather rapid response.

Across our events we have seen participants arrive with a variety of challenges but the intrinsic motivation to surf far exceeds some of the anxieties or sensory based differences they have. There is a shift in their affect, laughing with their siblings, they connect and engage with volunteers in a new and unfamiliar environment- conquering fears of seaweed or the unpleasantries of sand.

We have mostly correlated the positive results through surveys and qualitative data. Recently psychology students at ACU undertook research on exactly this. We are looking forward to reviewing their research later this year, and excited to be able to share it with the Surf Therapy world.

Why autism in particular? Was that a specialty/passion you already had, or did this focus happen organically/come out of a specific need?

It definitely happened organically, growing out of the US based Surfers for Autism program when it visited Newcastle in 2012. It was also an area we both were and still are working in. We have hoped that we would eventually be of service to a wider demographic- understanding there are people who have other conditions who would benefit. But as we are still growing and only small, we first hope to ensure great quality of service, building the skills and abilities of our volunteers before we offer more than we could provide.

Your surf events are so inspirational. Free surf lessons using local surfers as volunteers is such a great idea – why was that important for you guys?

Glad to hear this is how you also feel they are received! I think this circles back to the real need in our society to establish and uphold the ‘gift economy’ as an aspect of our humanity we have frequently have cut off. I think we can see our unique human qualities as gifts; Surfer’s have a gift for reading the ocean, understanding it’s rhythms and flows, and then learning how to play with it and share joy with it.

I also believe we feel most fulfilled when we are honoured for our gifts. Sometimes in our day to day lives we aren’t always given that opportunity to express the innate gifts we have. And no one, no matter how wealthy, secure or comfortable can feel fulfilled in a life where those gifts go unseen.

Providing a platform to share gifts became really important for us. And we have found has resonated with surfer’s up and down the east coast.

Regardless of their knowledge of autism or experience in the field, what shines through is that they are able to share their gift of the ocean with our participants.

And it is received with equal gratitude from a population who often don’t feel seen or heard in our society.

 

Why is community so important to you?

Community to us is the foundation for long term social change.

By empowering people to be of service to others (in building knowledge and experiences with Autism), and in creating safe and supportive environments for autistic individuals, we can build and sustain more purposeful and cohesive communities.

At Surfing the Spectrum, we see the need for a new story to emerge. No longer is the story of ‘more for you is less for me’ valid. Instead, we understand that ‘what happens to you happens to me’ and therefore our relationships to each other become one of mutuality. We understand that anything that happens to any other being happens in some sense to ourselves. This is the basic philosophical notion underpinning our organisation, and as such our mission can be nothing less than to contribute to a world which reflects one of equity and cohesiveness for all individuals within the community.

We love your advocacy statement: “to promote, protect and support the rights of children with autism and their families, to social and community participation through our surf initiatives.” What stirs in you to stand for something like this?

I think it has been stirred from our experiences and the privilege we know we have been born with, highlighting the lack of equity which exists in society. We see the difference in equity from equality; where equality assumes that regardless of an individual’s circumstances, all will benefit from the same provisions.

But we see that this is flawed in the sense it does not take into account the marginalisation or deprivation a population group or person might face, preventing them access to opportunities. An assumption of sameness is the basis for this approach, and it fails many in our autistic population. This is what really stirs us and propels us in action.

Equity creates conditions to eliminate the obstacles to opportunities regardless of poverty, race, gender, or disability. The hard truth to understand is that some people need more. Plain and simple. Due to no fault of their own and by circumstances out of their control, they haven’t the opportunities to develop the requisite skills.

The distribution of resources is often spread out by select people who decide what someone might ‘deserve’... all for reason which often does not take into account- race, gender, poverty, disability... So, for us here at Surfing the Spectrum we started to consider how different our world could look if we decided equitably on the needs of others. What we could do with the skills and knowledge we had to start making a positive change within our community.

Rewards vs Challenges. Describe the highs and lows of working in this space.

While it may look like all smiles and stoke at events (which it is!), there is A LOT of background work that can go into these days. I suppose the challenges can be in finding the support that will keep us going. We know we have something amazing to share, but the challenges of being hit with rejection to financial supports- be it sponsorships or grants is a really tough part of being a charity organisation. It required you to build a lot of inner resilience, reserve and to maintain your faith in what you are putting time and effort into every day.

It’s especially tough at the moment with very competitive grant rounds, as many not-for-profits are all being deeply affected at the moment due to the global challenges of COVID.

But what keeps us going each day is seeing, feeling and hearing the experiences both our participants and volunteers have at our events. We know how deeply our community need these days; we know how significant the one day they can be supported to go to the beach is to them as a family. Those are the highs.

Do you use Surf Therapy on yourselves? 

Absolutely! I know that for Tahlia now with a new baby still cherishes any ocean time she can get- whatever the experience can be.

For me, I have seen how my current desire and need for more playfulness, reduced expectations and joy have translated to my surf time. The last 4 months all I have surfed is a foamy. Life has been pretty full on, and the ocean has remained my space for play and lightness.

Taking the pressure off performance of any sort and experiencing surfing solely for the purpose of joy has renewed my love for surfing.

To make it extra kooky my partner and I now even take our goggles out with us to go snorkelling with the fish between sets- I’m greatly enjoying the smiles that cross peoples faces as they see us paddling out looking completely ridiculous, it seems to lighten up the line up a little bit as well which is always a bonus!

If you could hit the fast forward button and see STS in 5- and 10-years’ time – what would you hope to see?

We hope that STS can grow in a way which will be sustainable within each of the communities we venture into. We are currently designing training for surf schools so that following our events they can continue to support autistic children and their families throughout the year. This could be a service the surf school offers and something which could be supported be disability funding.

From there we see our events continuing across the east coast of Australia, but each year instead of being the one chance families have had to go surfing, it is more a celebration of the community coming together to share their gifts. 

How can people support, get involved with STS?

There is definitely always space for anyone who wishes to join us, making use of whatever skills different people have. People can jump on board and volunteers at our events in the water as surfers, in the tents for registration or down on the sand to play with the kids and support families.

We are looking for champions within each community we go to as well. Someone who is on the ground is each space and can support the community in connecting with our events.

As we grow, we are looking to build our board to advise us and support our growth, so if this level of support is of interest there are opportunities available.

And of course, we are looking for continued sponsorship and support from individuals and businesses to help us fund our ongoing programs. As a small, lean, not-for-profit we’ve managed to make our funding go a long way and we will continue to do all we can to ensure these events and trainings continue, but we can’t do it alone. Any and all support is warmly received.

 

Thanks so much for your time, Aimee! You guys are an inspiration, and we love the work you are doing in the community! Find out more about Surfing the Spectrum here, or dig deep and donate to this incredible cause here.

 

Photos by Luke Henkle & Marina Weitz

 



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