Waves of emotion at Surfers for Autism Beach Festival

A month before Damian Richter’s third birthday, his mother listened with mounting confusion and alarm as doctors told her Damian might never talk. He’d never have imagination or empathy. He’d never engage in pretend play with other kids. She might never hear her only child say, “I love you.”

It was April 12, 2005. Parents never forget the date they are told their child has autism, she says.

“I looked at them and said, ‘Wait. Stop. Stop telling me what he won’t do and tell me what he will do,’ ” says Tracy Bastante, of Deerfield Beach. “They looked at me and said, ‘Well, we don’t know.’ ”

On Saturday, April 22, you’ll find Damian, now nearly 15, on the waves north of the pier on Deerfield Beach with a group called Surfers for Autism, showing off the skills that have won him dozens of trophies and medals in Special Olympics surfing events and Gnarly Charley competitions all over the state. Damian will be the one standing confidently astride a new blue surfboard, at his feet an inscription of his name, on his head turbulent curls of hair he’s trying to keep his mom from cutting. It’s part of who he is.

“I’m a surfer,” he says.

FIRST WAVE

Once she acclimated to the shock of Damian’s diagnosis, Bastante threw herself into finding a way to crack the code of her young son’s silence. Over the next couple of years, she tried speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, applied behavioral analysis therapy, horse therapy and swimming therapy.

The search was time-consuming and emotionally trying, and exerted significant financial pressure, with Bastante’s insurance and Medicaid not nearly enough to cover the costs. Bastante, who works two jobs, says these stresses eventually led to a divorce from her husband.

When Damian was 5, Bastante came across a flier for a group of Deerfield Beach surfers who were trying to gather autistic children at the shore to introduce them to the therapeutic relationship they enjoyed with the sea. The instruction was free. In her research, Bastante had heard about the positive effects of surfing on autistic children. She and Damian arrived at the beach just as surfers and volunteers, calling themselves Surfers for Autism, were setting up for their first event at the Deerfield Beach pier. Damian was the first of a handful of kids to sign up that day in 2008.

His mother watched from the shore as three SFA volunteers led Damian into the choppy water and put him on a surfboard for the first time.

“I was panicky at first. So nervous. But I watched him coming in on that first wave, on his hands and knees, and that big smile,” Bastante says, beaming. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ That’s all you ever want, is to see your kid smile, to see that pure joy. And that’s what he had. … He only talked in phrases back then, and when he got in, he said, ‘Again!’ ”

TIDE OF EMOTIONS

Damian and his mother have attended every SFA event since then, and will be at the 10th annual edition of what is now a free, three-day beach festival, April 21-23, that fills the sand on the north side of the pier with live bands, food trucks and surfing-related vendors. Admission is still free, as are the surfing sessions for kids on the autism spectrum. The not-for-profit SFA will accept donations at the festival.

The idea that began in Deerfield Beach a decade ago has grown into a series of SFA festivals around the state, as well as one in Georgia. The Deerfield event caps registration at 200 surfers, and slots sometimes are filled in a matter of minutes, with participants coming from up and down the East Coast.

The highlight of the weekend is 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, when kids at different points on the autism spectrum take to the waves with SFA volunteers.

One such volunteer, longtime surfer Dave Rossman, arrived at his first Surfers for Autism event in 2009 with preconceived ideas about the limitations of the kids with whom he’d be working. It took about 15 minutes in the water for these kids to remind Rossman of the special relationship surfers have with the rhythm of the ocean, an idea even he may have taken for granted.

“Seeing them for the first time stand up on a wave, to grasp the ocean like a lot of people just never will in their life, I realized right then that everything I thought [about autism] was wrong,” he says.

Emotions run high on the beach during the Saturday surf sessions, especially among parents sending their children into the waves for the first time. Rossman says many parents, after years of being lectured about the things their children can’t do, typically want to accompany their child into the water. They are turned back by SFA volunteers in an act that Rossman, the father of two boys, acknowledges takes extraordinary trust.

“Once that kid catches that first wave, invariably you can’t tell a child with autism from one not on the spectrum,” he says.

The crowd of parents on the beach is typically a roiling ebb and flow of relief and tears.

“I can’t speak too long without having them come up myself,” Rossman says. “There’s so much emotion that goes from outright terror and fear to the instant when everything just kind of comes out, and it becomes weeping.”

LOVE AND EMPATHY

“Surfing feels like … I’m flying,” Damian says, still wet from the waves on a recent afternoon on Deerfield Beach. “I’m catching waves and doing tricks, everything.”

The sport has given Damian an identity and a new sense of confidence, his mother says. He enjoys competing, and has learned to be a good sport when he doesn’t win, which can be difficult for someone with the rigid set of emotions that often accompany autism, she says.

In December, Damian received his black belt in karate, which not only involved a rigorous physical test but also required him to deliver a 30-second speech to a room filled with classmates and parents. He made sure to thank his coaches and his mom.

“Of course, I was bawling,” Bastante says.

Damian’s evolving self-assurance has helped ease his mother’s anxiety as they prepare for a new school in the fall, when he starts at Monarch High School.

She’s also buoyed by a story related recently by a father of one of Damian’s fellow students at Lyons Creek Middle School. The father told Bastante about how Damian routinely helps his daughter, who has a physical disability, with her backpack, carrying it through the busy hallways, and opening bags of chips for her in the cafeteria.

“The dad just told me this. I didn’t even know. He said, ‘Your child is so helpful,’ ” Bastante says. “He has grown so much that way. He likes to help others. He does have a lot of empathy for people.”

And does he tell his mother, “I love you”?

“Oh, yes, many times,” she says. “He has progressed beyond my wildest dreams.”

The 10th annual Surfers for Autism Beach Festival takes place Friday-Sunday, April 21-23, at the Deerfield Beach International Fishing Pier, 200 NE 21st Ave. Admission is free. Go to SurfersForAutism.org.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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