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Surfing is changing the lives of children with autism and learning difficulties.

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Breaking the Barrier is a unique one-day event introducing youngsters, aged 8-25, with disabilities to the experience of surfing and the thrill of actually riding a wave.


It all began a few years ago when some American surfers came over to the UK from Long Island to demonstrate how they were teaching less able kids to surf and giving them a freedom and experience that theyd remember forever.


2010 will be the fourth year Richard Hanlon has organised this event for the Devon-based charity Lifeworks. Normally autistic kids wont even get wet, let alone have a go at surfing, explains Richard. This event allows children with learning difficulties to surf in a safe but extraordinary environment. Far from any normal routine, they take to the ocean waves and it is plain to see from the smiles on their faces that this chance is a very special one for the children and their families.


Richard explains how children with autism and learning difficulties really open up once in the water and in the surf. Being in the water, and in a different environment, unlocks some things for children with autism and other learning difficulties. They relax, they can express themselves a little easier and communication that is often lacking might become a little easier.


Sometimes, to start with, some of them dont even want to put a wetsuit on. Then after 45 minutes in the water they dont want to come out of the sea!

We try and get as many new people involved each year, says Richard, and sometimes, to start with, some of them dont even want to put a wetsuit on. Then after 45 minutes in the water they dont want to come out of the sea!


Lifeworks organises the Bigbury-on-Sea event in association with local surf instructors from Discovery Surf School. To be able to put 130 kids through a surf lesson on one day is a massive achievement, and families travel from all over the region to take part.


Living with autism and special needs can be very isolating, and can dominate family life. But getting siblings and whole families surfing together means that problems can get put aside for a day. Children noticeably gain confidence, whether it is a ten-year-old boy with autism or his older sister who just enjoys trying out a new sport for the first time.


Katy Absons son Bailey is autistic and is fanatical about superheroes, amongst other things. Spending a day outside like this is a great opportunity for him to see that the rest of the world is out there. Its also nice for my daughter, Libby, to have a chance to do something she can share with her brother. She can share in something that is predominantly about having a special need but in a positive way. It really is just breaking down the barriers.
Standing on the beach watching their children, its great for parents to share this experience with other families, and it is such an encouraging way of giving support.


Its not just the families that feel rewarded at the end of the day. Lifeworks recruit a brilliant team of surf instructors and wetsuit-clad volunteers to help out on the day. Rachel Bell has volunteered for the past three years and will be back on the beach with the kids this September. I think this is the most impacting thing that I have ever done. It seems to get through to kids who might otherwise feel quite cut off, explained Rachel. You can see a little smile and see that theyre having a positive reaction to surfing.


You can see a little smile and see that theyre having a positive reaction to surfing


Last year, this event was rolled out to six different locations across the UK in Wales, Kent, Norfolk, Dorset, Cornwall and Devon with over 800 children benefitting. Rather then intending to provide formal lessons, the specialist instructors offer each child the chance to experience the thrill of riding together on a wave in tandem and, where possible, they have a go at standing up on the board.


At the end of the day, theyre just children having fun, and hopefully theyll leave with lasting memories of surfing for the first time. As mother Katy Abson said: I dont think any of the children have noticed the fact that it is a special needs event as far as theyre concerned they have come surfing and thats it.


19 September
Breaking the Barrier
Bigbury-on-Sea, South Devon. Free.
To reserve a place or volunteer at the event contact Richard Hanlon on 01803 840744,
rhanlon@lifeworks-uk.org, www.lifeworks-uk.org

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