Monday, September 8, 2014

Belmar Beach Bash draws thousands affected by autism



Kyle Surita carefully placed his feet on the surfboard and caught a wave. He gained his
balance, then raised both arms high in victory as he waved to his parents.

The 11-year-old from Elmwood Park was one of more than 200 people with autism who surfed the waves Sunday in Belmar. Thousands gathered on the Seventh Avenue beach that morning for the Autism Family Services of New Jersey's 10th annual Beach Bash.

James Surita and Michelle Foschino watched their son surf from the shore, and waved back to Kyle. Once on land again, Kyle took a deep, theatrical bow.

Afterward, Kyle said he loved "that rush you get when you stand up on that surfboard… It's just amazing."

Kyle is one of a growing population of people in New Jersey diagnosed with autism, a group of disorders that cause difficulties in communication and social interaction. In 2000, about 1 in 150 children nationwide were diagnosed with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Just 10 years later, about 1 in 68 children were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

In New Jersey, the rate is even higher: 1 in 45 children in the state have autism, according to the CDC.

With so many affected by the condition, organizers of Autism Family Services of New Jersey expected about 7,000 people to attend the Belmar Beach Bash, which included free activities and food.

"The Beach Bash is a day of acceptance for families," said Liza Gundell, deputy director of the organization.

Information tables lined the beach, a DJ played music for children, and a bounce house vibrated with energy on the sunny afternoon.

Katie Sweeney, 53, of New York City said the accepting atmosphere drew her family. Her 16-year-old son, Dustin, has autism, she said.

"We live in Manhattan, so it's hard to find that vibe of acceptance," said her husband Michael Sweeney, 51.

Dustin has attended the event numerous times, and with the help of volunteers from Surfers Healing, has ridden the waves on previous trips.

"The ocean has an incredibly calming affect," Katie Sweeney said. "He was scared at first, but once we got him out, he didn't want to stop."

Jeff Ekberg, director of Surfers Healing, said the organization was formed by professional surfer Israel "Izzy" Paskowitz after one of his sons was diagnosed with autism. Paskowitz took his son out paddling and discovered the boy, like many others with autism, was calmed by being out on the water. Paskowitz launched Surfers Healing with a group of professional surfers, and the organization now tours North America taking more than 4,000 children with autism and special needs surfing each year, Ekberg said.

"Part of it is really being out on the water and making a connection with that child," Ekberg said. "If they're apprehensive, after you catch that very first wave, they don't want to get out of the water."
Part of Surfers Healing's mission is to break assumptions about the limitations of children with autism, and prove that they can participate in many of the same sports and activities as their peers.
Kyle is proof of that capability. In addition to surfing Sunday, he boogie boards and skis, his father said.

"He's very adventurous," James Surita said. "As long as he's willing, we'll take him. We don't hold him back."

Congressman Chris Smith — who spearheaded a variety of federal legislation to support autism programs — stood on the Belmar beach just yards from the surfers.

Smith authored the "Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education and Support Act of 2014" or Autism CARES Act, which gives $1.3 billion over five years to autism research. The act also puts focus on children with autism who "age out" of services when they reach adulthood.

Smith said 50,000 people with autism "age out" of services each year, but these young adults need jobs and housing.

"There's a huge tsunami of children with very significant challenges," Smith said. "There needs to be a game-changing attitude in our society."

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