Episode 30:

Surf2Heal—Surfing for young people with autism spectrum disorder

Date released: May 2012: Updated: August 2017

Partners: Tomas Aylward and Surf2Heal

Surfing is a great sport. Perhaps not synonymous with Ireland, but the Irish have a quite brilliant program that teachers surfing for young people with autism. We had a chance to catch up with Surf2Heal while attending the EUCAPA Conference. See our exclusive interview.

Surfing is a great sport. It’s one of those sports that pit us humans against the forces of nature. We can never ‘beat’ nature, but we can have a fun time trying!

Surfing is a particularly interesting sport for young people with autism. The combination of the water, the sand, wind and the physical requirements of surfing as an activity would present many challenges for people with autism. It’s un unpredictable environment. One that requires constant adaptation.

That hasn’t stopped organisations such as Surf2Heal in Ireland. Surf2Heal is a non-profit organisation created by Jon and Alayne Hynes and Nollaig Hayes.

Nollaig who saw the enormous benefits that the sea had on her son Sean approached Jon to ask him to teach her son to surf, as she had come across a group in America called Surfers Healing who were successfully running a surf camp for children with autism. Jon suggested a research mission to Nollaig.

Needing no persuading they agreed and in a matter of weeks Jon, Nollaig and Sean were on a plane to Mexico to visit the Surfers Healing team. The trip was a great success and on their return in May 2008, Surf2Heal was created as a non-profit organisation in Ireland.

A national call for volunteers was made and a team of enthusiastic surfers, care workers, special needs professionals and water worshipers came together eager to share their expertise and love of the ocean.

With the support of the local sports partnership and Cork Association for Autism a comprehensive training program for volunteers was set up that included water safety, autism awareness and child protection. Special equipment was ordered from England and following a few weekends of training the team were ready to pilot the new Surf2Heal program.

In August 2008, on a clear summers morning the volunteers took to the water. Surf2Heal’s first weeklong camp for children with autism was initiated and 43 children were introduced to surfing for the first time.

Below you can see a short promotional video for Surf2Heal.

They have gone from strength to strength since then. They have hosted surf camps across the country—in County Cork, Kerry, Clare and Waterford, introducing over 160 children with autism to surfing in 2011.

Below you can see four videos (Days 1 – 4) taken as part of a documentary on Surf2Heal camps in 2008. They give you a really good feel about how they do their business.

Last year RTE Radio in Ireland produced an excellent podcast of the Surf2Heal experience. You can hear first hand the experiences of the participants in Surf2Heal by clicking on the microphone below.

Surf2Heal on RTE Radio

We were also fortunate enough to catch up with one of the volunteers with Surf2Heal at the EUCAPA Conference in Ireland in May and interviewed Tomas Aylward. He ran a session at the Conference for delegates—in the cold coast line of Ireland. You can see extracts from this session below.

Interestingly, Surf2Heal are undertaking a study of the volunteers at Surf2Heal camps in Cork and Kerry. They are looking at the capacity of the camps to build Emotional Intelligence in the volunteers. The study will use a standardised instrument to assess the EI of the volunteers before and after their period of volunteering and will use the reflective journals of the volunteers to gather qualitative data.

Great stuff and a fabulous example of the connections between practice and research.

A lot of work goes into an organisation such as Surf2Heal and there are many lessons to be learnt. What they are doing is clearly working as it spreads across Ireland. So why not go and visit their website and give them some support. Click on the image below to see more about Surf2Heal.

The Inclusion Club—Episode30: Surf2Heal Website

Make sure you take a good look at the videos here and go to their website if this kind of program interests you. We are sure they wouldn’t mind you getting in touch—they are a friendly bunch in Ireland!

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About the author: Peter Downs

About the author: Peter Downs

Founding Director - The Inclusion Club

Peter is Founding Director of The Inclusion Club and Manager of Play by the Rules – a national initiative to promote safe, fair and inclusive sport. Peter has worked for over 25 years in the field of inclusive sport, disability sport and physical activity including 17 years managing the Australian Sports Commission’s Disability Sport Unit.  In 2013 Peter was fortunate enough to receive a Churchill Fellowship to study models of best practice in inclusive sport and physical activity.