He had just surfed his heat in the National Championships. The Hawaii sun beat down on his back as he cut through the cool water back toward the shore. He’d done well, advancing to the finals. He felt good; it had just been him, the water, and the surfboard under his feet.
Back on the beach, Izzy Paskowitz’s family—his son, Isaiah; daughter, Elah; and wife, Danielle, were having a very different day.
Isaiah, about 8 at the time, was wailing. Danielle was crying too, at her wit’s end from trying to comfort Isaiah.
Isaiah was diagnosed with autism at 2. Danielle and Izzy had dealt with these kinds of meltdowns, realizing that they couldn’t do much to stop them.
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that affects sensory processing. Symptoms differ as no diagnosis is the same. Some typical effects include repetitive behaviors, social challenges, and difficulty with verbal communication. These vary in severity, and the diagnosis level is often estimated by the functionality of the child or adult.
Izzy Paskowitz struggled with Isaiah’s diagnosis. He was 24 at the time, deep into a professional surfing career taking him coast to coast or even around the world.
“I struggled a long time with the acceptance that I had an autistic child,” Izzy Paskowitz says. “You know, I am a pro-surfer on billboards and in the pages of Sports Illustrated and Esquire. I wasn’t supposed to have this life.”
Danielle hoisted Isaiah out of the sand and handed him over to Izzy. “Take him,” she said.
Izzy Paskowitz tried to comfort his son, hugging the small boy tightly to his chest.
“I ended up walking down to the shore because I was embarrassed,” Izzy Paskowitz says. “All my friends were looking at me like ‘what is wrong with you.’”
Feeling frustrated and powerless, Paskowitz didn’t know what to do. In an attempt to distract Isaiah, he threw his son into the sea, watching his head disappear beneath the white foam leftover from the broken waves.
“He didn’t pop up for a little bit, and I got really scared,” Izzy Paskowitz said. “Then, his head appeared and he’d stopped crying. He was actually smiling.”
It was a complete transformation.
Paskowitz didn’t hesitate. He got his board and slid Isaiah on with him. They paddled out and caught a few waves, and to Paskowitz’s amazement, Isaiah was calm and happy the entire time.
The birth of Surfers Healing
Later that day as the family drove away from the beach, singing filled the car.
From the backseat, Isaiah sang a Sarah McLachlan verse: “Adia, I do believe I failed you. Adia, I know I’ve let you down.”
Izzy and Danielle were shocked, Isaiah could speak, but he rarely did, and he certainly never strung that many words together.
“That’s when the realization hit us how the water had soothed what was ailing his brain,” Izzy Paskowitz says. “Of course, he is still autistic, but he was definitely less likely to have those autistic behaviors that day and even into the following day.”
Paskowitz saw the surf as an opportunity to help his son and maybe even connect with him, something he once believed impossible. That moment sparked a new chapter in their lives, leading Paskowitz to begin Surfers Healing, a camp teaching kids with autism how to surf.
“We’re taking a special child, who maybe has parents who feel how I used to feel and maybe haven’t come to terms with their child’s diagnosis,” Paskowitz says. “This is my purpose in life.”
The non-profit now has 26 camps across the United States, one that serves Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach.
“A lot of autistic people deal with either sensory overload or underload, so I imagine with surfing it can be very calming sensory-wise to be on the waves,” journalist Eric Michael Garcia says.
He recently wrote “We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation,” a book covering the experiences of autistic people in America and the social and policy issues they face.
By working with the local resources such as Autism Family Services or a motivated parent raising money, Izzy and his team of surfers expanded to states up and down the East Coast. Because of that support, there is no cost to attend at any of the camps.
A sense of community
Chris Omohundro’s daughter, Ellie, was diagnosed with autism when she was 3. Her particular experience with autism impacts her ability to communicate and socialize in a typical manner.
She was 8 the first time she and her parents drove from their home in Greensboro to the Surfers Healing camp in Wilmington.
Watching from the beach, Omohundro could tell Ellie was nervous as she pulled on a wetsuit for the first time. He was nervous, too. But, as she got into the water with her coach, he saw the tension in her body dissipate.
She and the surfing coach talked about dinosaurs during their allotted 30-minute time slot. When Ellie returned to the beach, she came a big smile.
The surfer who had been with Ellie told Omohundro, “I learned so much about dinosaurs.”
Now Ellie is 16, and when Omohundro and his wife, Jennifer, ask if she wants to go back to surfing camp for a day, her answer is always yes, and she still recounts the dinosaur conversation from her very first camp.
The Omohundros return each year not only because Ellie has fun, but for the overall sense of camaraderie they have with the other parents on the beach.
“Even though they are total strangers, you know they are in a similar situation as you,” Chris Omohundro says. “It’s really comforting to be around people you’ve never met but know a lot about them just from the vibe that they’re there with you.”
Chris Omohundro says one thing kids with autism have to deal with, especially in school, is the pressure to behave a certain way for an entire day. But, on the beach the autistic children redefine normal, shedding societal standards they’re typically molded into.
“They take you as you are, and if the kid wants to surf, great,” Chris Omohundro says. “If the kid doesn’t want to do it then that’s fine and if the kid has a meltdown and they want to try again later, that’s fine too.”
It’s a perfect day because it is a happy day. Not just for the autistic campers, but also for the parents.
Camp comes to Wilmington
The Wilmington branch of Surfers Healing started 15 years ago with about 50 kids.
Having this perfect day is possible because of the networks of people committed to perfecting the logistics.
Families bringing their kids don’t have to worry about anything. Volunteers take care of getting families from their car to the beach, lugging their bags, getting kids outfitted in a life vest, matching them with their surfers, and signing them up for their 30-minute time slots.
“Our mission is to focus on the families and give them a reprieve from the therapies, the doctors, the whole clinical side of it — for them to just be able to breathe,” local director Nikki Bascome says.
Camp co-director Janet Gwaltney remembers the first Wilmington camp vividly.
It was cold, and the sky overhead was gray and muted, as if someone had turned down a dimmer switch. Gwaltney wasn’t prepared for what Izzy and his fellow surfers would do that day.
“I’ve always been around surfing,” Gwaltney says, “But, it was mind-blowing to see these kids come out of that water happy and smiling. It was something unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
But, sometimes, the waves are too much for the kids.
The first time Sterling Stewart went to Surfers Healing in Wilmington, he was 3. The waves that day were rough and choppy. In his 30-minute time slot, his mom, Heidi Ziehm, watched as Sterling nose-dived below the surface, the irregular waves smacking him in the face.
He was overwhelmed and didn’t like it. But, Gwaltney encouraged Sterling and his mom to try again. After lunch Sterling went back out. By then, the tides changed and Sterling caught wave after wave, sailing down the smooth hills made by the water, a huge grin on his face.
Sterling is 12 now, and that day changed his and his family’s life. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, at 2, resulting in symptoms like learning disabilities and sensory issues.
The water calms him. “We were doing a lot of occupational therapy before, and the water sort of takes the place of that for him because it gives him that deep sensory pressure and compression he craves,” Ziehm says.
Sterling has discovered his place: in the water on a surfboard. Today he surfs at least four days a week, and his family moved from Durham to Wilmington because they were going back and forth so much to get Sterling to the ocean.
Each year, Ziehm and Sterling volunteer at the Surfers Healing camp. The rest of the year Sterling surfs as much as he can, competes in surfing competitions across the country, and is sponsored by Savage Surfboards, a Wilmington surf shop.
“Surfers Healing was the gateway that changed our lives,” Ziehm says. “Having that opportunity to get him out in the water safely with 90 people who knew what they were doing is what turned the corner for us.”
A long journey
For the past 10 years Isaiah Paskowitz stayed in California as his father and the other surfers went from camp to camp. But, this past summer he made the journey to the East Coast with his dad.
The last camp they visited this summer was in New Jersey. The camp ended in late afternoon, the sun dropping closer to the horizon line, as if the ocean was a magnet pulling it down.
They were a strange pair — Izzy Paskowitz with his permanently tan skin, tattoos snaking up his arms a long dark ponytail, and slightly graying beard. Isaiah at 30 years old, with his brown hair and sturdy build, almost taller than his dad.
Isaiah looked at his dad and said “all done traveling.”
It was a simple statement, but it represented the long journey Paskowitz had traveled with his son and how much he’d grown.
“What has changed is my perception of what I have, and the grief I felt because I had a child with autism, all that was one-sided and selfish,” Paskowitz says. “Now, the smallest of things with Isaiah make me so grateful and just make me want to hang out with him and understand how cool he is.”
It was a perfect day.
For more on the North Carolina branch of Surfers Healing, go to surfershealingnc.org.