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Panama City Beach surf outing benefits autistic children

News Herald - 8/16/2018

Aug. 16--PANAMA CITY BEACH -- What started as a ripple of an idea in 2012 has grown into a wave over the past six years.

The idea was to provide sensory experiences for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) by getting them onto surfboards on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. Families could relax together while volunteers worked with the kids, and the event would help to raise awareness of the children's needs.

"We noticed a real love for water activities among all of the children participating, but especially by Chloe, who was diagnosed with ASD," explained Julie Clark, president of Autism Surfs PCB, on the organization's website. "At that time, the wheels started turning as we really closely watched the way the water brought out different abilities, responsiveness, communication and expressions compared to the classroom environment."

Water activities also helped Chloe and her friends interact with each other with a common interest, the organizers said.

On Saturday, Autism Surfs PCB will again host a free mainstreaming event for eligible children from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the M.B. Miller County Pier, 12213 Front Beach Road, Panama City Beach. The activities are designed for children who want to participate in the sport of surfing in a welcome and supportive environment. The nonprofit organization will provide boards, life jackets, breakfast, water, lunch and free drawings at the end for registered children. Area organizations will have free information booths on site, and participating children will receive a free T-shirt.

(For details, call Julie Clark at 850-527-0532, email autismsurfspcb@yahoo.com, or visit the website, AutismSurfsPCB.org.)

"We have some that don't like going into the water" at first, Clark said at an Autism Surfs PCB event in 2015. "Eventually, some don't like to get out. They really take to it fast. Some are nonverbal, but we communicate with them. Their smiles do it all."

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, ASD is a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. Autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is said to be "developmental" because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life. The American Psychiatric Association uses these factors to diagnose ASD: difficulty with communication and interaction with other people; restricted interests and repetitive behaviors; and symptoms that hurt the person's ability to function properly in school, work, and other areas of life. Autism is known as a "spectrum" disorder because of a wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience.

Clark and her husband, Warren, are lifelong locals and were already involved in the surfing community. They don't have a child on the Autism spectrum, but they own the Club 4 Kids and Club 4 Kiddies day cares and have provided care for children on the spectrum. Seeing Chloe's reaction to the water, they were inspired to bring surfing activities to the children and families in this area who have been affected by Autism and related needs.

They spoke with Richard Weeks, who had founded Autism Surfs in Fort Walton Beach just one season before. Weeks' son, Christopher, had been diagnosed with ASD and was non-verbal, but Weeks discovered that he reached a level of communication with Christopher he'd never before experienced when he shared his love of the water.

Weeks' success introducing children on the spectrum to surfing inspired the Clark family to start a similar organization in the Panama City Beach area, the website said. Autism Surfs PCB, Inc. is a 501(c)3 non-profit dedicated to spreading awareness, acceptance and inclusion of individuals with ASD and related disabilities. The method of doing so was through uniting the community to introduce clients to the sport of surfing.

"We get the kids out here. We have a good time," Weeks told The News Herald. "It's not one guy that started it. It's the community showing up that cares."

At an Autism Surfs PCB event, the surfers and their families are provided with the necessary equipment and volunteer support for a successful experience in the water, organizers said. The cost of the event is covered through fundraising efforts and business sponsorships, and most of the helpers at the event are volunteers.

Anyone interested in volunteering may show up on the day of the event, or sign up in advance by filling out a form at the organization's website. Volunteers help with sign-up of children; distributing arm bands and T-shirts, water and meals; set-up and breakdown of booths; safety monitoring and helping in the water.

"All parents need to do is bring the child and something to sit on. We try to make it as easy as we can for them," Clark said.

Typically, families will watch (though some will help out) while volunteers hold surfboards steady for the children. Some of the children are confident, smiling as they stand on the board -- before they fall into the water. Others are a bit more timid. They may lie on their boards for a time before they gain enough confidence to stand. Clark said she believes surfing and getting into the water is good therapy because the children can meet other people and get sensory experiences. It also gives families a chance to relax.

The crowd has grown slowly, but it "got big" in 2014, Clark said. Pre-registration is appreciated, but not mandatory. Registration also will be available at the tent on the day of the event.

The event takes place on the third Saturday of the month during the season. In case of rough surf or bad weather, the date may be changed. Check the Autism Surfs PCB page on Facebook.com for the latest updates.

Additional reporting by Collin Breaux and Jan Waddy.

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(c)2018 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)

Visit The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.) at www.newsherald.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 
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