Girl standing on surfboard with help from Autism Swim

Surfing is a such a fun way to enjoy the ocean, be active and enjoy the natural environment of the beach.

We know that being active is good for us, but surfing in particular can have added benefits for those who are neurodiverse that you might not know about!

Physical benefits of surfing

Surfing is a highly aerobic activity that provides many physical benefits. Not only is it great overall exercise, the associated movements of surfing benefit gross motor strength, fine motor strength, range of motion, coordination, balance, and flexibility.

The water's buoyancy aids mobility allowing some individuals to require less physical assistance than they do on land.

A person who has additional mobility needs (for example someone with hypermobility - a common co occurring condition with Autism) may find being in the surf provides greater ease to move their body and they need less support and assistance when they are in the water/on a board.

Social benefits of surfing

Surfing may seem like a solitary activity but it is actually a great way to develop social skills in a low demand way. Interacting with program providers (surf coaches) and other surfers helps to encourage social skill development, particularly in areas such as awareness of others and turn taking.

When surfing, it is important to be aware of the people around you, such as other surfers and swimmers. Surfers can practice turn taking when riding waves and also observe their fellow surfers efforts, which provides opportunities for conversation - about the weather, the surf, a wave they caught etc.

For many people who are neurodiverse or have specific learning needs, sporting programs can be difficult as they come with complex rules, close contact with others, over stimulating environments and additional social pressures. Surfing is a non-invasive sport that provides opportunity for inclusion and independent participation, without all the additional difficulties other programs might have!

Sensory Benefits of surfing

The natural, multi-sensory environment of the ocean, sand, open air, salt water and even the marine fauna and flora, provides a highly multi-sensory experience for participants. The water specifically provides pressure and resistance to the body, thus improving body awareness and muscle activity.

Proprioception is a sense used a lot in surfing. Proprioception refers to how we process pressure in our joints and muscles. Pushing a board, pushing up on a board, pulling a board, paddling are all examples of information processed by the proprioceptive system.

The Vestibular sense is also used in surfing. Vestibular refers to how we process frequencies of movement and responses to gravity with relation to the movement of our heads (nod, tilt, shake). Catching a wave, balancing on a board, moving from lying down to standing, diving under a wave are all examples of information processed by the vestibular system.

Undertaking activities, such as surfing, that provide additional feedback for these two senses in particular, as well as other sensory input, can be organising and beneficial to people on the autism spectrum and those with specific learning needs. It can help with sensory regulation and emotional regulation too.

Mental Wellbeing benefits of surfing

Surfing assists with social connectedness, in a low demand way, making it easier for participants to engage socially with their peers. Purposefully planned water activities, such as surfing, hold the ability to positively contribute to psychosocial and cognitive development. The motivational and therapeutic properties of water provide a stimulating learning environment for participants.

The cardio element of surfing provides the same mental health benefits as other forms of exercise - it helps release endorphins to improve mood, as well as reducing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This can help to reduce anxiety (another common co occurring diagnosis with Autism) and depression.

The sensory benefits can assist with self regulation, and an increase in emotional regulation.  The repetitive nature of surfing is predictable and can feel organising for the nervous system. There is also no sense of “winning and losing” in this physical activity, reducing pressure on participants.

Skill Development benefits of surfing

As it can be an individual activity, surfing promotes individual goal setting. Goals can be tailored to the individual to allow for skill development that meets them where they are at. A baseline of skills can be determined, and then actively worked on in sessions to promote skill development that is meaningful for the participant.

Skill development can be broken down into key areas, such as Safety and Security, Foundations and Skills, Ocean Therapy, and Review and Generlisation. These can be tailored to meet the needs of the individual, and used as a measure for regularly checking in on progress.

Safety benefits of surfing

The unpredictable and ever-changing environment of the beach and ocean provides the opportunity for ongoing conversations regarding beach and surf safety.

Embedding practices such as checking the surf conditions before each session can help with increasing executive functioning skills using planning and organisation.

The ocean provides the opportunity to learn about surf related safety skills such as identifying rips, currents, gully, types of waves, ocean signs of marine life & hazards.

Surfing sessions also provide the opportunity to generalise safety skills learned in other ways (e.g. in therapy sessions) to other environments within the community.

Surfing is more than just about fun...

So as you can see, surfing isn’t just FUN, it has loads of benefits for everyone, and particularly for people on the autism spectrum and those with specific learning needs.

To find out more about becoming an Autism Swim Approved Surf Coach, or to find Autism Swim Approved Aquatic Providers in your area, check out the links below! 

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