No one can explain exactly why what happens happens, that a child locked away in the grip of autism and a family hardened by years of accommodating the disorder are suddenly, for a few hours, free.
The moment when the child, aided by a Surfers for Autism volunteer, finds the rhythm of a wave and synchronizes, however briefly, with himself and the outside world, is described, simply, as “magical,” and left at that. As if further examination would harm the delicate cosmic balance that allows it to occur.
This isn’t to say you won’t find emotion, raw and palpable, on the beach this weekend for the sixth annual South Florida Surfers for Autism Beach Festival in Deerfield Beach.
As a volunteer, Randy Skinner, surfer and owner of Surf World in Pompano Beach, has seen firsthand the effect that catching a wave has on an autistic child, the stone-faced silence replaced by smiles, high-fives and something more.
“Kids who hardly say anything to anyone all year are expressing themselves, talking. Kids are opening up to their parents,” Skinner recalls. “There are a lot of tears. Tears of joy from the parents, the kids. Everyone is crying.”
Even Skinner? “Well, it’s definitely a moving experience,” he says.
Surfers for Autism was hatched by a half-dozen local surfers on the shore of Deerfield Beach in 2007, says Dave Rossman, a longtime South Florida surfer and SFA staffer since its second year. They included one surfer with a brother with autistic tendencies and another with a relentless will to do good, Don Ryan.
The group started with a dozen autistic children and young adults getting in the water with about two dozen volunteers in December 2007. They created the first SFA festival in May 2008, and it has since grown to 15 events up and down the coast, and in Puerto Rico and Australia.
It took less than four hours for this weekend’s Deerfield Beach event to fill its limit of 200 autistic participants, including many from outside the state, Rossman says. Just as impressive: The roster of volunteers is also “maxed out.”
It’s no wonder, Rossman says, because the volunteer experience helping the participants catch a wave is “life changing.”
The first child Rossman took into the water was nonverbal and not very enthusiastic to be out there, he says. But after catching a wave, he was “talking, high-fiving, bear-hugging us.”
“Being out there for 10 or 12 hours on Saturday, lifting the kids, putting them on boards, is exhausting,” Rossman says. “But what you get back, when you see what you did … It’s unreal.”
Beyond the good karma of the surfing event on Saturday, there is the expanded entertainment and food options for the South Florida Surfers for Autism Beach Festival, which will stretch over three days this year. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted.
“This is a full-on beach party, with live music, family activities, food trucks, beer and wine,” Rossman says. “There’s really something for everyone.”
Among the local bands on the bill for Friday night’s kickoff concert are Uproot Hootenanny, the Baron Sisters, Rustico Drop and Pretty Girls. Saturday’s music includes reggae from ARTIKaL Sound with RedLyte and Biggz General (a grandson of Bob Marley), plus Fireside Prophets, Bushwood and Future Prezidents.
Food trucks Friday and Saturday include Latin Burger, Nacho Bizness, Slow N Low BBQ, Tikiz Ice and Slushies, Slow Food Truck, the Rolling Stove and Che Grill. There will be an auction and raffles with items including vacation packages, surfboards, paddleboards and skateboards from local shops and vendors.
On Sunday, the Stand Up Paddle Board Race, sponsored by Surf World, offers elite and recreational divisions, with prizes for the top three in each group. Racing will take place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., with award ceremonies from 2 to 4 p.m. Registration is $30 in advance for recreational racers, $50 for elite; beach registration (until 9 a.m.) costs $10 extra. Paddleboard vendors also will be on hand offering free test rides.
DAMIAN ON BOARD
Damian Richter, 10, will be at the surfing event on Saturday, as he has been every year since the first event in 2008.
“Surfing opens him up,” says his mom, Tracy Bastante, of Deerfield Beach. “It’s changed our lives.”
Water always had a calming effect on Damian (pictured above), whom Bastante describes as being on the mild end of the autism spectrum, and she leapt at the opportunity when she saw the first SFA flyer in 2008. Damian didn’t talk at all at age 3 and was speaking in phrases at age 5, when he first got in the water with SFA volunteers.
“I was nervous, taking your 5-year-old son and putting him in the water with these three guys,” Bastante recalls. “The waves were kind of big. They put him on the board and gave him a push. … Seeing his face light up as he caught his first wave made me feel so happy, so proud of him.”
Bastante and her son have since traveled around the state to other SFA events, even flying to Puerto Rico last year. For a single mom working two jobs, that requires sacrifice, but the self-confidence Damian has developed is worth it, she says.
“He‘s talking more, and talking better. You’ll see him hugging his surfing instructors,” Bastante says of her son, who now has a circle of surfing friends from Key West to Jacksonville. “It’s been a long road.”
Bastante says the SFA events are also “therapy” for parents, who get a relaxed day at the beach with their child without the gawking and finger-pointing that often comes with it. “No one is looking at your kid funny,” she says.
“One of my favorite things is to see parents watching their kid surfing for the first time, seeing that joy on their face, sometimes some tears in their eyes,” Bastante says. “It connects us.”
IF YOU GO
The South Florida Surfers for Autism Beach Festival
What: A free community event with live music, water sports, games, prizes, exhibitors, food trucks and beverage vendors.
When: Friday (5-10 p.m.), Saturday (9 a.m.-10 p.m.) and Sunday (8 a.m.-4 p.m.). The surfing event is from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Sunday includes the pro-am Stand Up Paddle Board Race from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where: Deerfield Beach, four blocks south of the International Fishing Pier
Contact: SurfersforAutism.org, Facebook.com/SurfersforAutism