Youths with autism find new wonder by the surf 

click to enlarge Kids, including some who have autism, experience the surf at Dunes Beach in Half Moon Bay. The Square Peg Foundation created the program as an alternative-therapy method. - COURTESY SQUARE PEG
  • Courtesy Square Peg
  • Kids, including some who have autism, experience the surf at Dunes Beach in Half Moon Bay. The Square Peg Foundation created the program as an alternative-therapy method.

Gathered by the surf at Dunes Beach in Half Moon Bay one recent Friday morning was a group with diverse exposure to the sport of surfing.

Some were children with autism who had never felt the thrill of riding waves, while others were experienced surfing instructors in their teens. And some were parents who said they were relieved to have discovered an activity for their kids, many of whom are chronically overstimulated by their environments and find everyday situations challenging.

The group, which met for classes that are held several times each summer, is led by Joell Dunlap, founder of the Square Peg Foundation in Half Moon Bay. Dunlap, a horse owner an equestrian, initially started Square Peg as a way to pair rescued horses with children. The idea was to provide something different from traditional horse-related therapy programs, she said, by offering a way for children to help horses in need, and not the other way around.

With their work through the organization, which has been operating for 10 years, Dunlap and other volunteers found that children with autism are often drawn to this particular type of horse therapy.

"Autism found us," said Dunlap, noting that groups that work specifically with young children with autism learned of Square Peg and began recommending it to their patients' families.

The work conducted with youths with autism through the horse riding program evolved into the surfing group, which promotes many of the same benefits, Dunlap said. Learning from local teen surfers, the youngsters have the opportunity to socialize, play outdoors and try a new activity, while their parents can interact with one another.

The youths have had different responses to the exposure to surfing, as one parent described. Maria Stewart recalled the joy the day at the beach gave to her son, Neil, who wore his wetsuit, and played in the water and the sand, although he didn't quite get to the point of fully surfing.

"It's incredible how many people come to the house to work with Neil," Stewart said. "But this is all fun. No work is involved."

Dunlap sees the surfing meetups as an opportunity for parents to take a break and allow their kids to mingle with others and enjoy themselves.

"Your job is to relax," Dunlap told one arriving mother, directing her toward the coffee and tea dispensers as the woman's young son barreled down the path toward the beach.

By the water, children of all ages in wetsuits played soccer, splashed in the water and built sand castles. One girl put on a life vest and waded into San Francisco Bay for the first time.

"My favorite thing about Square Peg is the community," said Max Freiberger, a 19-year-old who works for the organization as a mentor. He found Square Peg through his mother, a psychotherapist, and began attending horse riding classes there before he was a teenager.

His mother, Jeanne, who now volunteers for the organization, said she appreciates how much Square Peg did for her son by helping him develop a sense of himself outside of school, where he experienced some feelings of not quite fitting in. Dunlap explained how Freiberger has reciprocated that influence by mentoring other kids who are going through similar situations.

Dunlap and her husband sold their home in Palo Alto to start Square Peg 10 years ago, and today she said there is still plenty of room for growth. They would like to start a full-time internship program that will allow young people to assume responsibilities and take home a small paycheck for their work with the group.

"Learning how to work is important, and they're really happy doing it," Jeanne Freiberger said.

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Emilie Mutert

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