Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols

Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols

Author:Wallace J. Nichols [Nichols, Wallace J.]
Language: eng
Format: epub
Tags: Science / Life Sciences / Neuroscience
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Published: 2014-07-22T00:00:00+00:00

Autism and Water

Going into the water you leave autism behind…


While neuroscience and cognitive psychology have made great strides in understanding why being in or near water is so good for mental and physical health, there are some watery “miracles” that are yet to be explained. One of these is the positive effect of water and water-based exercise on children with autism. Clinicians who study aquatic programs designed for autistic kids discovered that parents and recreational therapists report increases not just in swimming skills, muscle strength, and balance in the children, but also greater tolerance of touch and ability to initiate/maintain eye contact.69 In a Taiwanese study, children had fewer negative behaviors, and demonstrated greater attention and focus and more appropriate conversations with peers following a ten-week swimming program.70

But it’s on the beach, in the waves, that some of the biggest transformations take place. In Deerfield Beach, Florida, a fit, white-haired, fiftyish surfer dude named Don Ryan has been running a program called Surfers for Autism since 2007. Professional surfers and other volunteers come together with around two hundred autistic kids and their families for a day of surfing, paddleboarding, music, and games. Children with many of the classic traits of autism—including lack of ability to focus, limited communication skills and ability to verbalize, anxiety around others, lack of social skills and inappropriate responses, difficulty forming personal attachments, a sense that they are in their own world, and extreme sensory sensitivity to light, sound, smell, repetitive movements and ritualistic behavior—often approach the water with fear and trepidation. But time and time again, once they’re in the water, or on a surfboard or paddleboard, something good happens. Kids who have rarely smiled or spoken wear wide grins as they ride a wave to shore. They come out of themselves and start to relate to people around them. Dave Rossman, who volunteers with the group, comments, “Once they are on the beach, you can’t tell a kid with autism from any other child.” 71 One mother at a Surfing for Autism event said, “I will never forget the joy I saw on my daughter’s face that day, the pride she felt that she was enough just the way she was.” At these events, her daughter “isn’t a girl with Asperger’s—she’s just a girl who is seven, catching a wave.”72

There are all kinds of theories about why this happens: the water is stimulating visually, which fulfills some children’s sensory needs; water provides “a safe and supported environment” that surrounds the body with “hydrostatic pressure” that “soothes and calms”73 (as another expert said, it feels like the “ultimate hug”74). Learning new motor skills like swimming, surfing, or paddleboarding can have “a broad-ranging impact on the nervous system,” according to William Greenough at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois: “There’s increased blood flow to crucial neurons, and the reshaping of abnormal structures in the front brain. But beyond that, surfing may be a vehicle to an emotional breakthrough, a way of reaching under the mask and perhaps connecting to kids like these.


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