ASAT Responds to The Daytona Beach News-Journal's “Surf event serves as therapy for kids with autism”
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Dear Mr. Massey,
We read with interest your article titled, “Surf Event Serves as Therapy for Kids with Autism” (The Daytona Beach News-Journal, July 29, 2012). Upon first reading this story, we were impressed with Surfers for Autism (SFA), a non-profit organization which holds surfing events in various cities around the world for children with autism. The surfing event sounds like it is enjoyable, helps bring about awareness of autism and may potentially increase the recreational opportunities for children with autism in a relaxed and positive atmosphere. It is wonderful that parents with children with autism have another place to come together to offer support and to meet other parents with similar experiences. We applaud Surfers for Autism for giving parents a respite and for allowing children with autism to experience an exciting outdoor activity.
We appreciate the effort of SFA to expand the array of social opportunities available to children with autism, but also believe it is important and necessary to make the distinction between a recreational activity such as surfing, and the use of the term “therapy.” “Therapy” is defined as treatment of illness or disability. The implication of the use of the term “therapy” is that the person receiving the therapy will be cured or that symptoms will lessen in clinically measurable ways. Although enjoyable, there is insufficient published research to show that surfing - or other recreational leisure activities - can assist with improving the core symptoms of autism. Stories abound that espouse the advantages of various leisure "therapies," and while they are heart-warming, their therapeutic benefit to children with autism may be overstated.
Despite the fact that these children and their families may have had some positive experiences at surf camp, this article left us with a few concerns:
• Dave Rossman, SFA’s Communications Director, reportedly states, "the ocean heals, whether you have autism or not" and that "the organization uses surfing as a form of therapy for children with autism.” Exactly how the ocean heals or the degree to which it heals is not mentioned. In addition, the use of the ocean as therapy is not fully explained. Proponents of surfing therapy should better define the basis of their intervention, document the benefits of surfing in objective and measureable ways, and publish those findings in peer reviewed journals. To the best of our knowledge, such published findings do not exist.
• Rossman also states that "bringing a child with autism to a huge event with 2,500 people is hard to do because it's too much stimulation, but today it's all about them and it works." Although not all children with autism experience difficulty coping with large crowds, if a child with autism does exhibit sensory challenges with large groups of people, parents should be aware that there are scientifically validated treatments that exist to help children better tolerate uncomfortable situations.
• It is wonderful that Surfers for Autism has so many volunteers to assist with all of their surfing events. There is no mention as to whether this activity is free for the children and their families, or if a registration fee is charged. If SFA does offer free surfing events, that is great and a relief for the families; however, we imagine that there are other surfing venues for children with autism that are not free. Parents may be required to pay to have their children attend surfing events for "therapeutic reasons.” At a time in which funding is being cut for so many needed services, we must be very mindful how monies are being used to pay for experiences that may not have therapeutic value (not to say that they would not be enjoyable).
Journalists should be aware that there are over 400 treatments for autism, the majority of which have little to no scientific evidence about their effectiveness. Autism and autism treatments have now become a multi-million dollar industry. Many proponents of various autism treatments use the Internet to tout miracle cures and in so doing, rely heavily on heart-wrenching testimonials. While these stories are touching, we need to focus on treatments and therapy that have actually been proven to have scientific validity.
Thank you for highlighting that persons with autism, like the rest of the community, can enjoy the benefits of surfing, and for sharing the wonderful work that so many dedicated volunteers are doing; however, we would caution against the use of the term “therapy,” as this may lead parents to believe that the symptoms of autism may improve through surfing when this is not really the case. When stories about autism and potential therapies are highlighted in the news, we believe that readers would benefit from more thorough information about what makes surfing “therapeutic,” the costs and benefits, as well as the presence or absence of scientific support.
Shannon Wilkinson, MADS, BCBA
Media Review Committee, Association for Science in Autism Treatment
David Celiberti, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Executive Director, Association for Science in Autism Treatment
Read More at http://www.news-journalonline.com/.../307299972