LA JOLLA, Calif. — William Cary said he’s learned to appreciate small victories with his 17-year-old son Ben.

The Del Cerro teen has autism, epilepsy, ataxia and he doesn’t speak, so Cary choked up while describing how proud he was this summer when Ben buttoned his pants for the very first time after going to the bathroom. But one victory that Ben achieved long ago was surfing. Since the age of 6, he has been participating in Surfers Healing surf camps for children with autism.

The annual event returned recently to Tourmaline Surf Park in La Jolla. More than 150 children took turns riding the waves with 15 professional surfers, as well as a small army of volunteers. Ben could hardly wait to get in the water with surfer Mark “Shecky” Graham. Within minutes of hitting the sand, Ben clambered onto a longboard and Graham gently pushed him out into the thigh-high surf.

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Graham, who has an 11-year-old son with autism, said he’s seen firsthand how children immediately transform when they’re rolling in the ocean waves.

“Sometimes these kids show up and they’re screaming and fighting and scratching, but as soon as you get them out there, they don’t want to come back in,” said Graham, a San Clemente resident who has volunteered with the organization for 15 years. “They may start out upset but then when they’re in the water, suddenly they’re in the moment.”

Surfers Healing was started 20 years ago by surfer Izzy Paskowitz and his wife, Danielle, after their toddler son, Isaiah, was diagnosed with autism. One day while the family was at a surfing competition in Hawaii, Isaiah had a meltdown on the beach and Izzy tried to distract the boy by tossing him into the waves. Suddenly, the boy’s anger was replaced by smiles and wonder, and Surfers Healing was born.

Surfers like Graham and San Diego chef Pete Robson travel the country to volunteer as tandem wave-riders at the camps. Robson, whose surfing nickname is “Jersey Pete,” said he saw a story about Surfers Healing on ESPN and after he stopped crying, he reached out to Paskowitz. That was 10 years ago and he’s volunteered every year since.

Each year, the foundation hosts 25 camps around the world serving more than 5,000 children with autism, ranging in age from 3 to their mid-20s. About half of the group participating at the recent camp were new to the sport. Among the newcomers was 3-year-old Grant Barney, whose morning meltdown was suddenly replaced by excitement when his turn to surf arrived.

Grant’s mom Stacey Barney said she’s been amazed at how a few minutes in the water will affect the mood of Grant, as well as his 8-year-old brother Jacob, who’s also on the spectrum.

“They can be having the worst day and then as soon as they get in the water something just happens and it calms them for the rest of the day,” said Stacey, whose husband is a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton.

Paskowitz said the ocean has a healing power on people with autism. The rhythm of the waves calms them, and the sounds, sights, textures and temperatures create such a sensory overload that it forces the mind to focus. Many of the children arriving at the beach initially covered their ears from the crash of the waves, but gradually these sensitivities disappeared.

Daniel Fontanez, 20, of New Orleans clearly relished the multisensory experience of surfing. Accompanied by a volunteer, the young man with autism enthusiastically jumped up and down in the waves, licked the seawater off his hands and confidently rode a body board on his knees. His father, Danny, said his son has a processing disorder that sharply limits communications skills, but when the family travels each year to attend the camp in La Jolla, Daniel suddenly becomes verbal.

“He’ll say ‘get in car, go see Izzy,'” said Fontanez, 44, who now volunteers two weeks a year at Surfers Healing camps on the East and West coasts. “What Izzy does is show these kids love and compassion and nothing else.”

Cary, whose son Ben has been known to spend up to three hours surfing the waves, describes Paskowitz as “the surf whisperer” because of the patience and kindness he shows each child.

“The main thing is he treats them with respect,” Cary said. “They deserve no less.”

The Paskowitzes are hands-on organizers. While Danielle oversaw volunteer activities on the beach, Izzy rode the waves with camp participants. Isaiah, now 25, quietly kept watch from the beach in the shade of a blue canopy.

Tourmaline Surf Park holds a special place in Izzy’s heart. He’s one of nine children born to surfing doctor Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, who famously traveled around the world for 14 years with his wife and nine children in a series of camper vans. Tourmaline is where Izzy learned to surf and where the family spent many months during his childhood. When “Doc” died in 2014, the Paskowitz family scattered some of his ashes at Tourmaline and his name was added to a marble surfers’ memorial monument at the park. Known as the “first family of surfing,” they started hosting surf camps in the 1970s and the siblings still surf and work together. Izzy’s brother, Adam, was among the volunteer surfers.

With autism there are good days and bad days. Some campers shouted with glee as they rode into shore standing on the board with a surfer, while others couldn’t be lured into the water at all. One teen camper who traveled with her mom from Arizona wouldn’t get out of the car for more than an hour. Finally she was coaxed to take a brief 10-minute ride in the knee-high waves on a body board. As she returned to shore, a volunteer awarded her a small trophy for participation.

Volunteers Veda Mosley and Andi Perez said helping out at Surfers Healing is their favorite day of the year.

“The parents are so grateful and the children are so excited,” Perez said. “It puts a smile on everyone’s face.”

© 2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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