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Helping kids surf the spectrum with Ocean Heroes

Five years ago, Zak was a child who struggled with anxiety and meltdowns.

While Zak is an agile, strong and active child with non-verbal autism, for many years his parents struggled to find activities that would meet his sensory input needs and help him stay regulated and calm.

Fast forward to 2023 and this energetic 14-year-old feels like a new person.

Ocean Heroes participant Zak (front) enjoying the surf with Ocean Heroes surf instructor Xander de Haan (behind).

Zak’s world changed for the better when he was introduced to a surfing program through Ocean Heroes, a WA charity set up by local surfers in 2016 to teach children living with autism how to surf, develop confidence, boost self-esteem and make meaningful connections with others.

Funding from Mineral Resources (MinRes) has recently enabled Ocean Heroes to purchase eight new specialised stand-up paddle boards (SUPs) so more people can enjoy the thrill of catching a wave at their free community events.

Zak’s mum Karen said Ocean Heroes has had a mind-blowing impact on her son’s life and her own.

“Zak used to be really anxious and highly agitated, having enormous sensory meltdowns every day – sometimes several times a day. It’s heartbreaking for a parent to watch,” Karen said.

“We had tried everything from horse riding to gymnastics and everything in between to help regulate his anxiety and keep him calm, without success.”

When Zak’s occupational therapist suggested to Karen a surfing program providing success to kids on the autism spectrum, she didn’t hesitate to give it a try.

“Zak’s life changed the moment he got on the board with the two surfers and my life changed too. I had tears of joy,” Karen said.

“We knew we’d found exactly the right outlet for him. The squealing, endless smiles and social interaction – Zak’s cheeky side and his personality shone through. He loved every second of it.

“It’s now something he loves getting out of bed for – every day if he could. Zak participates in the monthly free events, one-on-one surfing sessions and surfs at every opportunity during school holidays.

“He has built an awesome rapport and friendship with all the surfers; they all know him and love going out on a board with him.

“Surfing fulfils Zak’s sensory needs completely. His balance, endurance and confidence have all improved significantly. He has developed social communication in his own non-verbal way and enjoys a laugh with the surfers out on the waves.”

Ocean Heroes hosts over 26 events each year involving 1,200 members of the autism community, each supported by 50 and 70 volunteers. Not only does this positively impact the participants and their families, it promotes autism acceptance throughout Western Australia.

Ten-year-old José is another young participant with autism who has benefitted from the surf program after struggling with anxiety, lack of confidence and low self-esteem.  According to his mum Jess, Ocean Heroes has transformed Jose’s confidence and helped him try new things.

“José just loves the surf experiences and social interaction; he is always super keen to go.” Jess said.

“Having positive role models who are fit, happy and genuinely connecting has made such a difference. I love seeing him laughing and surfing with confidence.

“Afterwards he is so chilled out and relaxed – nothing matches it. Since starting last year, we have been going down at least once a week before school.

“Because of the positive experience with surfing, José now has a can-do attitude towards other activities like skateboarding and playing the guitar.”

Ocean Heroes co-founder Sam Moyle said making the initiative free to attend has helped remove barriers for families facing social disadvantage.

“Mineral Resources supports our free events which run year-round across Western Australia, from Broome in the north right down to Esperance on the south coast,” Sam said.

“Thanks to MinRes’ support, we’ve now been able to acquire eight new SUPs.

“Not only does this mean 208 more smiling children like Zak and José on surfboards, it’s also 208 more families across Western Australia with the opportunity to enjoy something completely unique and be included in what can often be an extremely isolating community.”

Ocean Heroes participant José (left) getting ready to hit the waves with Louis Kelly, Head Coach of Ocean Heroes’ Surf Experience program (right).

For more information on the Ocean Heroes program, visit their website.