When Alison Kelley’s son Niko was diagnosed with autism at age six, the Farmborough Heights woman worried he may not get all the opportunities she wanted for him.
“To be brutally honest, when we got his diagnosis, it would be fair to say we went through a kind of grieving process as it dawned on us that the future we thought we’d have would not play out as planned,” she says.
“We really tried to persist in having him be involved in mainstream sports, but there was a point when the gap really started to widen. Eventually, he started refusing to participate and he would shut down.
“I was always hopeful there would be events and organisations where it wouldn’t matter if that happened. Where he could say ‘no’ without it impacting team members, and where people would understand.”
Those people, as Alison would discover in 2019, could be found at Surfing the Spectrum.
Co-founded by paediatric occupational therapist Aimee Blacker and certified surf coach and disability support worker Tahlia Anderson, Surfing the Spectrum is a not-for-profit surf therapy initiative working to positively impact the lives of youth with autism and their families by providing free learn-to-surf events.
Tahlia says the organisation’s goal is to share its love of Australia’s beautiful beaches with children with autism and their families while giving them a safe space to be themselves and enjoy the powerful therapeutic benefits of the ocean.
“We train local surf instructors and community volunteers in an autism-informed way to offer these free learn-to-surf events that improve participants’ health and wellbeing and also promote diversity and inclusion,” she says.
“Teaching water safety is also a critical part of the program as sadly, children with autism are three times more likely to drown than neurotypical children, so equipping them and their families with skills to stay safe in the surf is also a vital part of our surf school.”
Alison has taken Niko, now aged 13, to multiple Surfing the Spectrum events in the Illawarra, from Jerroa to Bulli.
She says the event gives children on the autism spectrum and their families a rare taste of freedom.
“It was one of the very first times we took Niko to an event and my husband and I could stand on the edge of the water and know he was fully supported without us,” she says.
“For a parent with a kid with special needs, that almost never happens, and it’s hard to put into words how liberating and joyful it is. Just being able to breathe easy and watch him enjoying himself out there, it was actually quite emotional.
“For Niko, the highlight was getting to go out on the water without mum and dad – he loved that independence. He’s a kid who always wants to go as far as he can and it was amazing to be able to let him do that and knowing he’d be safe.”
Siblings of participants are also welcome to take part – an inclusion that Alison says means a lot to families. Her daughter Lexi, who is neurotypical, loves getting in on the action.
“Seeing the joy on these kids’ faces, and the volunteers, it has become this magical event we get to go to each year that the whole family benefits from,” Alison says.
The most recent event in the Illawarra, which involved a surf school and water safety training, took place earlier this month at Port Kembla. It was the first time Surfing the Spectrum had come to the location, and it was made possible thanks to a $10,000 community grant from NSW Ports.
Tahlia says for an organisation committed to keeping its events free and accessible, and which receives no government funding, community funding is vital.
“The grant from NSW Ports allowed us to access that community, and we know the community was very grateful,” she says.
“You saw it in the number of volunteers, which was incredible. The event really brought everyone together.”
For more information on the organisation, events, and volunteering or funding opportunities, visit Surfing the Spectrum.