Around several parts of Florida, ‘Big Wave’ Spenser Schwartz is a well-known surfer.
The 8-year-old travels with his family to surfing events, characterized by his charisma and humor, and is even sponsored by Boca Java Coffee, with his picture imprinted on many bags.
‘Big Wave’ Spenser is not the average surfer, nor does he attend average surf events. He has been diagnosed with Autism.
Autism is a raging neurological disorder that affects a person’s communication and social skills. Research has yet to find a cure for the disease that affects children globally.
‘Big Wave’ Spenser has traveled with the Surfers for Autism organization up and down the east coast of Florida, stopping in places such as Jacksonville, Cocoa Beach and Stuart.
The organization, with a goal to introduce every autistic child to surfing, teaches children how to surf with an oncoming wave, creating momentum and joy for the child and parents.
“Its life changing,” said Dave Rossman, the Communications Director for SFA. “To see a child who hasn’t spoken in years catch a wave, and then come running onto the beach yelling with joy to their parents with teary eyes; it’s absolutely life changing. If this doesn’t move you, then you’re immovable.”
Don Ryan, one of the founders and the President of SFA, points out that surfing is a therapeutic way to fight autism. “The therapeutic aspect of this event is insane,” he said. “I see an immediate change in the children and their parents when they surf.”
To Ryan, the atmosphere at SFA events is critical. While children with Autism may struggle in public places, the ocean offers no judgment. “You can’t find an environment, besides this one, where you can put a child with Autism in front of hundreds of people and expect them to have fun,” he said. “Here everyone is accepted, no matter what disability they have. No one passes judgment.”
Autism, defined as the fast growing developmental disability in the United States, is out of control. According to The Center for Disease and Control, one in 110 children will be affected by it. Boys, more prone to the defective gene that causes Autism, have an even higher statistic: 1 in 70 boys born in this generation will be affected by the disorder.
While a cure seems as far as the setting sun on the ocean, surfing brings hope. Amy Schwartz, ‘Big Wave’ Spenser’s mother, says that it has changed her 8-year-old boy’s life forever. “When he surfs, we don’t see the anxiety in him,” she said. “Instead we see a huge glow in his face.” The event hasn’t just changed his life, though. “It’s changed my life, and every volunteer that I talk to,” she said. “If you attend one of these events, it’ll change you and you’ll be hooked.”
None of the volunteers or founders can quite identify why surfing is such a success for children with Autism. For many surfers, like Rossman, surfing is an escape from the world. “When you surf, your problems disappear,” he said. “Mentally, nothing follows you into the ocean. It heals all.”
The organization, being faith based, has had a few strange occurrences. While in Cocoa Beach earlier this year, the weather appeared dark and very unsafe to surf in. However, a patch of sunlight beamed through the clouds, and it was focused directly on the part of the beach where the event was located. Also, in Deerfield Beach, there were very little surf-able waves prior to an event. However, on the day of the event, a thigh high swell came in that was perfect to surf. Strangely, the waves ended with the event, as the ocean stayed flat for the next several weeks. “We’re looked after,” said Rossman. That’s the bottom line.”
The number of volunteers that shows up at every event also points to the belief that Rossman holds. The volunteers help with every duty on the beach, from cooking free food to pushing children into waves. “It would be hard to run the event without volunteers, said Palm Beach Atlantic University sophomore Ethan Parker, who attended the event in Jacksonville. “As a volunteer, you get to participate in the surf, and it changes you. Seeing the children surf certainly affected me.”
Parker gave a powerful testimony of how volunteering can affect someone. “I signed up and tried to help this one child surf,” he said. “After screaming for a while, he caught a wave, and I couldn’t get him off the board. Helping out with this gave me and the other volunteers so much joy.”
All of the volunteers and parents would echo Parker when he said, “Giving never felt so good.”
To get involved, visit Surfersforautism.org.