We went surfing today. I say we, I mean Archie went surfing while I floundered around being thwacked in the neck by waves and knocked over by my board. I’m a beginner surfer and have a beginner’s board – a 9 foot foamie. It’s big, so catches waves easily, but is very light and today it was so windy it just kept taking off. Literally taking off. It was like a kite. I spent about twenty minutes cursing and muttering to myself that I should have bought a better board by now until I was hit full on in the face. Grateful to have a slightly bruised cheek rather than a few missing teeth I remembered why I’m still on the foamie.
Meanwhile Archie was having a whale of time catching big waves with Tim from Discovery Surf School. He loves surfing in those sorts of ridiculous conditions and Tim had taken him over by the rivermouth to catch long rides into the river. I’d tried to follow them but couldn’t reach them very easily as the wind and tide were combining to produce some interesting currents and I soon realised that if I did ever manage to get over to where they were I’d probably never make it back. I didn’t really want to get into a situation where Tim would have to abandon Archie to rescue me so headed back to shore and went back to floundering around in the water waving at passing windsurfers.
Despite my total surfing failure today (I think I caught about one wave and fell off that almost immediately) we emerged after an hour pretty stoked. Well I was and Archie was and I think Tim was as well. There’s nothing quite like being mashed by the sea for an hour in January.
It was actually pretty warm today, but to surf in the UK in January you do need decent kit. Which brings me (eventually) onto the point of this post. When I suggest to parents of kids with autism or learning disabilities that they try surfing the most common worry is the wetsuit. Always the wetsuit. I can understand this – the first time someone suggested to me that we take Archie surfing. I said ‘he won’t go on a surfboard’ followed by ‘and there’s no way he’ll wear a wetsuit’. In common with many children with autism Archie had a lot of difficulties with certain types and textures of clothes (still does really). Tight fitting clothes were a no-no.
The first year Breaking the Barrier ran I refused to book Archie in partly because I thought there was no way we’d ever wrestle him into a wetsuit. Friends who did attend came back raving about what a great day it had been so I planned autism-mum style a year in advance to deal with the wetsuit issue and bought a shorty. This was a few sizes too big so provided no warmth at all but Archie would wear it, and so in September 2008 we sent him off for his half hour surf session at Breaking the Barrier wearing said shorty.
Well he was freezing. He finished the session shivering and with blue lips but seemed pretty oblivious to how cold he was and was not at all happy that he had to come in. Spotting an opportunity and attempting to cash in on his enjoyment of surfing I managed to find a cheap full length wetsuit.
This was fine while Archie was just surfing at Breaking the Barrier. Usually the weather was warm and there was no need for anything other than a wetsuit and maybe some beach shoes to protect against the dreaded weever fish.
The problems began really last year when Archie started surfing in the winter. The winter wetsuit he could just about cope with, but hood, gloves and winter boots? Oh no. Hats Archie never did in any form, nor gloves and neopreme boots take an enormous amount of tugging to get on. Come December it just became too cold to surf without gloves or a hood, and so we gave up for the winter, returning to the water in May.
This year was different as this year Archie went from liking surfing to really really, really, really loving surfing. I could see he wanted to surf all winter and when questioned ‘do you want to surf in the winter yes or no’ indicated yes, so I switched into autism-mum mode again and began exploring options early. I vaguely remember having conversations with the coaches about winter kit back in August. We bought Archie his own winter suit, so it would at least be dry to put on, boots he began to tolerate and was eventually happy to help me out getting them on. The hood was easier than expected, I found one with a large velcro strap at the front and he happily wore that. Gloves; we struggled. I developed a secret ebay neoprene glove habit as I tried (and failed) with different styles. Mittens? Nope. Thick gloves? Nope. Eventually I found a thin pair of neoprene gloves which I was able to wrestle Archie into, once he’d surfed with these he was able to tolerate something on his hands and happy to move onto the thicker gloves (which suited me as I could now use the thin ones – far easier for gripping the board).
Eventually, four years after starting the wetsuit journey we’ve finally made it and Archie is now suitably kitted out to surf year round. These photos were taken today, and although Archie wasn’t being particularly co-operative about having his photo taken he was very co-operative about getting dressed.
Archie’s also a pro at getting warm post-surf now and has worked out that the fastest way to warm hands and feet is to shove them under the dryer.
And in the past four years our downstairs bathroom has gone from a place to wash and do whatever you usually do in a bathroom to a place for rinsing, drying and storing wetsuits. Don’t stumble in there by mistake.
If you want to try surfing and think your child might struggle with the wetsuit I’d recommend the following if possible:
- Borrow a wetsuit (er we have a few!) and see if your child will put it on at home.
- If that doesn’t work look for a shorty wetsuit and go large. This will be useless in terms of keeping your child warm in the sea but will get them used to feel of neoprene.
- Look for wetsuits with zips at the ankles – they’re not as warm but far easier to get on.
- Once your child is wearing some sort of wetsuit get them surfing. Or if they really won’t wear a wetsuit try and surf wearing whatever they’ll wear on a warm day. Even if only briefly. Once Archie understood what surfing was and knew that he really, really wanted to catch some waves he began to accept ‘wetsuit or no surfing’. It was this technique that I had to use with the gloves this year.
- Try putting something on underneath the wetsuit. A cotton t-shirt will do, or a rash vest. For winter surfing I’ve started putting Archie into a rash vest at home, this makes it far easier for him to cope with a cold, potentially slightly damp wetsuit. Rash vests themselves have a slightly strange texture which might take some getting used to.
If all else fails you could try piling your child into a wetsuit at the beach. Sometimes once it’s on you find that there are no further problems and wetsuits become an acceptable item of clothing. Beware it can be difficult, the equivalent of trying to cram a ferret into a wetsuit (not my words, but a perfect description). I have seen the ferret technique work, and in some cases this has led on to an absolute love of being in the sea, so I reckon it can be worth a go if you have a child who isn’t too freaked out by this sort of approach. If all else fails, re-visit in a few years. I have noticed that older children are often more accepting of wetsuits than younger kids.
Although initially difficult for him Archie will now happily get into the whole kit and he’s been rewarded by year round surfing and the added bonus of getting to ride some waves in bonkers conditions like today. Watching Archie out there today catching waves, getting wiped out, getting straight back on the board and beaming throughout it was clear that although it took four years to get those clothes on him, it was worth it.