Changing the lives of children with autism

Surf therapy for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder is yielding positive results.

Children living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are learning life-skills through surf therapy, thanks to the work of NGO Waves 4 Change.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how a person acts and interacts with others, communicates and learns.

Waves 4 Change offers weekly surf therapy sessions to more than 1 000 children who are exposed to chronic adversity and violence, and who can’t access the necessary mental health services they need to help them cope with their challenging experiences.

Waves 4 Change global development director, Paula Yarrow, said this initiative started as a pilot project two years ago, working with children from Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plain.

Speaking at a celebration of children living with ASD at Oribi Village in Gardens, she said there was a demand for children who learn differently to have a mental health service as well.

“We realised that kids with ASD also struggled with things like anxiety, social isolation, depression and until they are able to manage and regulate their emotions it’s hard for them to access other services such as going to do shopping with parents or being at the library.”

She said these can be challenging and people are not very responsive or willing to open up their services to the children.

She said they started this programme with the Noluthando Special Needs School in Khayelitsha and they noticed positive changes in a year.

“The main thing was around social connection. One thing with ASD that can be challenging is making friends and working as a group. They struggled to talk about their feelings and that makes it hard to manage their emotions,” she said.

Ms Yarrow said with this surfing initiative, the children have found a sense of belonging, confidence and identity.

“They now know that they are not just autistic children but they are surfers. They are now sharing with other kids from their schools and they are accepted in a place that is not school or home,” she said.

Ms Yarrow said NGOs and other government departments should challenge themselves to open up more services for children with ASD. She said some of the assumptions that people have when they think about integrating this group is that it would be difficult to communicate with them.

“What we are trying to do today, is to show that these children can really thrive in their services and need them and what they need is for all people to be open-minded,” she said.

Ms Yarrow said the public is not always very welcoming on the beach.

“They don’t understand their behaviour, there are some people who are inquisitive and some people are quite scared of the stigma they don’t really understand and they think children are being rude and sometimes they fight different children,” she said.

Neal Cotzee from Mitchells Plain, said the surf therapy has helped his 12-year-old daughter, Logan.

“Before this surfing initiative, Logan was very scared of dogs and today she has her own dog because she got used to dogs at the beach,” he said.

Mr Coetzee said Logan is more engaging with people and does not fear a big diverse group. “The group has changed our lives and my child’s life. She now enjoys shopping at the malls. It’s phenomenal,” he said.