Surfing as therapy?

Archie was featured in an article on the BBC website this week. (Although I’m not credited I took that photo with a little point and shoot.) I was on the whole pleased with the article – I wasn’t misquoted or anything. Yes I really did say stoked, although I think that quote is taken from this blog. The article sums up everything I believe to be great about surfing and then  discusses whether surfing is an effective therapy for autism, and the need for control studies.

To be honest I’m not sure that surfing is a therapy and this point was not discussed during the interview. Archie certainly finds surfing therapeutic but then so do I. For me it’s an activity I do (badly) that allows me to escape into the sea for a few hours and switch off from everything going on with work and home. Therapeutic, but not therapy. For Archie I assume it’s the same but more so as it’s the only activity we have found he has ever really enjoyed for more than a few minutes. However, he is as autistic at the end of a surf as he is at the beginning, I don’t think anyone would claim otherwise. But he is happy and autistic. And happy is good. Whether it’s therapy or not perhaps depends on your definition of therapy.

The article strayed into talking about surfing as therapy when discussing the Wave Project a Cornish based scheme that has provided surfing for people from disadvantaged groups. This included an NHS pilot scheme examining the effect of surfing on people with mental health difficulties. And of course the NHS works with therapies and evidence based ones at that.

Locally this issue has been sidestepped as surfing has been funded by the council as a holiday activity for youngsters with disabilities. It is offered alongside sailing, theatre, dance, football, music making, and many other activities. (I should also pause to mention here that the council offer an enormous number of mainstream holiday activities as well). The council has been supportive in funding surfing, particularly I suspect because it fills a bit of a gap in that it has been able to take children with very severe learning disabilities who struggle to access most of the other activities offer. As an activity offered alongside others  there’s no need for control studies, or ‘proof’, it just needs enough punters to make it worthwhile running. In this way surfing can be enjoyed for what it definitely is – a fun way to spend an hour or so. And if there are anecdotal reports of improvements in behaviour then that’s great as well, but it doesn’t (in my opinion anyway) matter that it’s anecdotal.

I would only ever go as far as saying if you want to give surfing a go, then don’t be put off if your child has severe learning disabilities. There are surf schools out there with the necessary skills to take your child surfing safely. They may not like it, they may like it a bit, or it may end up being life changing as it has for Archie.

Breaking the Barrier 2012

Just a quick post to say that there is still time to sign up to Breaking the Barrier. This is the annual free surf event that introduced Archie to surfing. There are three sites running Breaking the Barrier events this year, Bigbury on 1 July, Saunton Sands on the 8th July and Polzeath on 15 September.

It’s always a great day, laid back and with a really lovely atmosphere on the beach.

The photo below was taken at the 2010 Breaking the Barrier at Bigbury.

All change

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about challenging behaviours. A month or so later I was invited on a course for parents covering how to deal with physically challenging behaviours. These courses are very difficult for parents to access, most run for professionals only, supposedly for reasons of ‘health and safety’. Presumably it’s okay to have parents bashed around providing they’re not trained in how to deal with it. Anyway I declined saying that Archie didn’t really have any physically challenging behaviours.

Of course I had tempted fate and about two weeks later Archie started to become pretty physically challenging. Autism has a way of doing this. Just when you think you have everything sorted, just when you think you are trundling through life quietly and happily a massive great autism spanner is thrown in the works. Actually that’s unfair, in this case the spanner is probably the p word (puberty),  together perhaps with some anxieties around the upcoming summer holiday. Archie knows he’s about to lose his daily and weekly routine. He also knows we have visitors arriving soon – which he enjoys, but perhaps almost too much as he starts to find it hard to wait or think about anything else in the meantime.

Anyway whatever the reason Archie has started to become really quite angry for the first time. The talker is helping with this, in that we can sit and discuss ways of dealing with feelings of anger. Today we actually had what I would call a conversation about it and I am certain that Archie does understand that hitting and shouting at people is wrong. That’s the first stage of redirecting it, something that we were also able to talk about, with him having an active voice in that conversation and able to contribute ideas. He’s also learning to describe behaviours and emotions. He can describe himself as ‘cross’ or ‘angry’ and recognise it in others. He can talk about undesirable behaviours such as hitting. This is quite a leap forward, we haven’t previously had the ability really to talk about difficult moments after they have happened.

Yesterday we had a somewhat challenging time at the beach. The journey there was relaxed until about five minutes before we arrived when Archie started shouting at me and trying to hit me. This continued at the beach and outside the surf school when we went to say hello. Jon from Discovery Surf took one look at Archie and decided to take him surfing, both to try and calm him and give me a bit of a break. The Archie who was handed back to me after his surf session was definitely calmer albeit still somewhat cross. He did well in his lesson, I was on the dogs allowed bit of the beach with Mad Dog and only my phone camera to hand, but if you squint hard at the second photo you might be able to see Archie riding into the beach standing alone. This is real progress. Afterwards he had a chat to the lifeguards, had lunch pretty quietly (only shouting at me for forgetting to pick up the tomato sauce) and then was pretty well behaved going home.

Yesterday was a difficult day, and I’m sure there will be more as we negotiate adolescence, but  it was certainly made easier with some surfing and the increased access to communication via the Vantage Lite.  It meant there were some good bits, and the day was in a way, salvaged. I am very grateful to Jon and Annika at  Discovery Surf School who arranged for Archie to have a lesson at such short notice, to Surf Relief who along with direct payments part fund Archie’s surfing and of course to the anonymous talker donor. We notice the difference the talker and surfing has made on the difficult days as well as the good ones.

Incidentally another course on dealing with physically challenging behaviours will be run for parents in the autumn. Please get in touch if you would like to be kept informed of dates.


Archie objects to me doing anything resembling ‘work’ with him, so most of the ‘work’ I do with him is incidental. For example Archie wanted to say that he would go home after school; he was signing school and home, so we transferred this to the talker and added the words ‘go’ and ‘after’.

Once a fortnight Archie has a more formal session with his speech and language therapist Nikki. She tends to use a mixed approach, so on the one hand she’ll chat with him about activities he doing, or videos he’s watching on YouTube (this works quite well as it provides an opportunity to explore vocabulary) but this is interspersed with more formal work where Archie is required to produce longer sentences.

The three videos below hopefully show these processes. The first two are an example of how we might chat about videos he’s watching:

From this we introduced the idea of ‘sun’ ‘roof’ (two separate words on the talker), and then went back to a general chat, providing practice at finding known words on the talker.

The third video shows an example of more formal teaching via some sabotage. Nikki has been working on getting Archie to produce longer sentences, and he does this beautifully; but she’s moved the apple, and so he has to produce some new vocabulary as well:

Surfing making a difference

Today we had the first session funded by the city council. I’ll let the video and photos do the talking. I have a really rubbish video camera; a £30 from ebay job, but hopefully it’s still captured some of how brilliant this morning was. If you don’t watch it all do watch the last fifteen seconds. The music is by Ruth Stavrik. Check her out on Soundcloud and MySpace.


I rarely cry these days; I’m hard as nails. Well sort of. But something that can bring me close to tears is seeing, or even just hearing about, children with autism or learning disabilities discovering surfing. I didn’t take the photo above, but I heard about the session afterwards (both from the mum and the coach) and when I saw the photo I found myself welling up.

The photo was taken during a 6 year old’s first surf lesson last week. He attends a local special school and I’ve spoken to his mum online. A few months ago she contacted me via Facebook, after seeing some photos of Archie surfing, to ask where I take him. I gave her the details and she booked to take her son this half term. Unfortunately the day of his surf lesson was the day  Devon was battered by a very unseasonal storm. I was still driving past fallen branches today. The surf school cancelled all lessons, but unluckily (or maybe luckily) the message didn’t get through. It was decided to give the lesson a go anyway and as can be seen he absolutely loved it! He was unfazed by the huge seas and loved the sensation of the waves crashing into him. His mum is delighted and he will be going again.

I think hearing about these little victories makes me cry because I know how much it meant to be when Archie began to surf regularly. After years of activities lasting minutes at most, seeing him find something that he’ll happily do for hours still makes me emotional when I think about it. And there’s something about seeing these kids so free and utterly stoked that is very moving. I can’t really put into words how special these moments are, although I suspect the photos in this post probably say everything that needs to be said.

June Update – birthdays and bottoms

It’s half term and quite a lot has happened since I last posted. For starters Archie’s a year older. He had his birthday; we had the annual family surf lesson. There was no swell, but Archie’s brothers were happy to catch ripples with Tim while Archie, Harry and I went for a paddleboard around Burgh Island. An SUP is now on the shopping list.

We were lucky with the weather. This video was taken less than two weeks before our calm sunny day:

After the dreadful May winter weather it’s continued to get warmer, as of this week we’re now surfing in summer suits with no boots. Heaven.

And communication wise? There has been so much progress. The talker is pretty much glued to Archie these days. He appears with it in the morning when I have barely woken up. It’s produced at bed time. He chats about everything and anything, from his desire to surf in northern Ireland (next year, next year,) to his wish to go on the cruise ferry to France and swim in the pool mid-channel. My job is to ensure it remains charged, everything else is in Archie’s hands.

Recently Archie has been talking about walking the dog (“maddog’) after schoo.l  I understood what he was saying using his combination of speech and sign, but thought it would be good to get it on the talker. So using icon tutor I found ‘after’. Archie did the usual thing he does on finding a new word – explored the buttons around it. Deep joy of joy, next to ‘after’ and ‘before’ there is ‘top’, ‘middle’ and ‘bottom’. Bottom. Oh great. I’ll leave the rest of the conversation to your imagination, but he told me it was ‘funny’, (I told him ‘naughty’ and eventually he conceded that it was ‘silly’ – we compromised).  His brothers find his new expressive vocabulary hilarious – in the way only 7 and 10 year old boys  can.

But yes sentences are getting longer, and Archie’s confidence is growing. And oh, after a year of sitting/kneeling on the surfboard yesterday he caught wave after wave standing up. Good times.