July 12, 2004 12:00 PM

When Izzy Paskowitz’s son Isaiah was diagnosed with autism at 3½, the former champion pro surfer fell into deep despair. His son could barely speak, refused eye contact and had terrible tantrums, and Paskowitz feared that he would never find a way to connect with his own child. Then during a 1995 visit to Hawaii, Paskowitz decided to carry his kicking and screaming 4-year-old into the waves, placing the boy on a board alongside him. Suddenly, Isaiah stopped crying, relaxed and seemed to delight in the sounds and motion of the ocean. In the process, a new bond was forged between father and son. “Water was the only thing that calmed him down,” recalls Paskowitz. “It gave us hope.”

Since then, Paskowitz, 41—the son of “Doc” Paskowitz, who helped popularize surfing in the U.S.—has passed that feeling along to hundreds of other families as founder of Surfers Healing, a nonprofit that runs free one-day surf camps for autistic children in Southern California and as far afield as Hawaii and New York. For the parents, the experience confirms what they have long observed: For some children with autism, being in the water can be dramatically soothing. It’s also a rare chance to see their child revel in life for a day. “Your kid may go out kicking and screaming,” says Lori Eyraud, 39, whose son Sean, 8, is a three-time participant, “but then they come back and don’t want to get off the board.”

For Paskowitz (who also has surfers Elah, 14, and Eli, 8, with wife Danielle, 38), of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., the satisfaction that comes with that tops anything from his days shooting the curl on the pro circuit. “I might have a hundred families thanking me, but I’m doing it selfishly,” he says, “to feel better about me—and about Isaiah.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer. Champ Clark in Malibu

You May Like