SIXTY families with children on the autism spectrum will surf the waves at Nobbys on Saturday amid rising demand for classes.
Hunter-founded community organisation Surfing the Spectrum is kicking off its Summer Series of events and expanding its service to seven more locations in NSW. It also plans to launch in Queensland and Victoria in 2021.
Aimee Blacker and Tahlia Anderson, both surf instructors and disability support workers, launched the charity in 2018 after noticing demand for their service while instructing with Newcastle Surf School and volunteering for another organisation.
They began with four events and have since tripled the number of events, assisted by local volunteers.
Ms Blacker, a paediatric occupational therapist, said it was clear from the start of the need for the service.
"Families were crying out for ocean experiences for kids with autism. We ran the first event through Newcastle Surf School in 2017 at Nobbys and requests were so high that we figured out that to continue running events ... we need to register as a charity," she said.
Their first event offered 50 places that sold out in 15 minutes. They offered another 50 and the same thing happened.
Twelve events are planned along the east coast up to May, the charity working with surf schools and councils to meet COVID-19 requirements.
"We are releasing event dates four weeks prior on our social media," said Ms Blacker. "We are trying to add four new locations each year in coastal regional towns that don't usually have these additional supports."
The ages and diagnoses of students vary and the women have noticed more girls attending. Each child has two volunteers with them, with surf instructors in the water and on the beach.
Ms Blacker said while most people took balance, vision and posture for granted, many neurodiverse people were challenged by their sensory systems. The ocean, she said, helps autistic children learn to move fluently.
"It provides respite from the constant attack their senses experience every day, allowing time for them to connect with their body in a fun, unstructured, exploratory environment," she said.
Ms Anderson said the charity worked to assist children who often were hesitant to get involved.
"We have had kids who are petrified to stand on sand, so we have carried them on the board and into the water and then you'll see them later get out and make sandcastles," she said. "Every child has a different response ... there is something about the ocean that is so motivating. Despite the sand, waves and noise, they want to participate."
"Parents feels supported and included and don't feel judged, and our volunteers get so much from it."
Classes include the siblings of participants.
"We understand the sacrifices, time and love they put aside for their brother and sister with additional needs, often missing out on the joy of these events," Ms Blacker said. "It is a big moral boost to families."
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