By Paul Bibby
THE six-year-old boy hadn’t said a single word for more than a year.
Like many children with severe autism, he found it hard to speak.
Then one day he went to a program in Perth called Ocean Heroes where kids with autism go surfing. And something amazing happened.
“We were out in the surf and I looked at him and said, ‘Are you ready to catch another wave?’” says Luke Hallam, one of the people who started Ocean Heroes.
“He turned around and looked straight at me and in a loud, clear voice said ‘Yes!’
“It wasn’t that he was cured or anything like that, but something about being out there obviously did something for him.”
Over the past year dozens of kids with autism have had amazing surfing experiences with Ocean Heroes.
The charity was started in 2016 by Mr Hallam and his friends, Sam Moyle and Tom Johnston.
The three men loved surfing and had experience working with children with autism.
“We raised $20,000 to bring a group out from California called Surfers Healing,” says Mr Hallam.
“Two hundred kids with autism went surfing that day and we decided that we wanted to do it more often. So we decided to start our own group.”
Many children with autism find it hard to socialise, so Ocean Heroes is a great way for them to have fun with other people.
“It gives them a chance to see that they can be part of the community,” says Mr Hallam.
“They’re out there in the waves with lots of other people and they’re interacting with other people.”
Catching the confidence wave
What is autism?
Autism usually starts in early childhood. It can be hard to communicate, socialise and make friends. An autistic person sometimes does the same thing over and over.
People experience autism in very different ways. Many people are able lead quite normal lives. Others need more help and support.
About 115,000 people in Australia have autism.
Taking on the challenge of surfing also helps kids feel more confident in other parts of their lives.
“When you manage to do something that you weren’t sure you could do then other challenges don’t seem so difficult,” says Mr Hallam.
But it’s also just about having fun.
Eight-year-old Zak Efferille enjoyed the waves so much he didn’t want to get out.
“He made the surfer go back in with him four times,” says Zak’s mother, Karen.
“Ocean Heroes has been the best thing that has happened to our boys.
“Both my boys are non-verbal. I just know how much they enjoyed it from all the photos we’ve taken … Listening to them laugh and watching the huge smiles across their faces.”