Autism Around the World: Chile. The Joys of Teaching Spectrum Children to Surf, Remoteness, and a Very Special Instructor.

I’ve written before about autistic children and their love for surfboards. Always inspiring the topic are the wonderful people who run the organizations that are built specifically for this joyful task. Their numbers keep increasing. From Surfer’s Healing in California to Florida’s Surfers for Autism; New Jersey’s Heart of Surfing to Eastern and Southeastern Australia’s Surfing the Spectrum; Puerto Rico’s Spectrum Surf, and then finally of course there’s my buds at Ocean Heroes in Western Australia, whom I adoringly wrote about in 2018—Oh my gosh!!! I almost forgot Long Island, NY’s own Surfer’s Way!…and how many do I not know of?

See? So many now (heart emoji).

But thanks all the progress, the joys are no more closed off to families whose beaches don’t have such organizations nearby. Nowadays, the everyday instructors and surf schools that don’t “specialize”…they’re sharing the love as well.

In Arica, a beach town in northern Chile, Barbara Gomez, 31, is the administrator of Arica’s Escuela de Surf and the adjoining coffee shop (that does a fab chick pea salad). Right from the start in our talk, Gomez went big picture.

“All the kids with autism and others, they are not different in the ocean. The idea for us is that the kids have to have a good experience with the sea.”

Parents are of course worried when they bring their autistic child to a first lesson. “When the parents come with the kids here, and ask if they can take a class, we talk about what to do if something goes wrong, if the parent have to be there or not…” But then, after carefully listening, to ensure that the anxious parents feel heard, Gomez spins her mantra that their children are different on the shore, but not on the board.

I asked her how many spectrum kids she knows or sees for lessons. She answers “three or four.” I ask her is they are tourists, or are they families who live here.

“They live here.”

It was a silly question on my part.

Outside of Santiago or adventure travel in the south (the capital is over 1250 miles away), Chile displays no real interest in developing a tourist economy—or at least not in Arica. Uncannily, despite its gorgeous beach and multiple breaks that accommodate many beginner to intermediate surfing abilities, it’s a spot that few know about (on several occasions, as far as the eye could see, I was the only person in the water). Unconcerned, the locals tell me, “It’s a Chile thing.” But as in Panama, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, Morocco (Agadir)…such remote places also keeps the cost way down. In almost all cases, your airfare costs more than a week of hotels, food, and your other expenses combined.

Because they are locals and not tourists, Gomez’s relationship with the families feels more special. “The first day the parents are very scared. They see the biggest waves. Then, after half a day, they can see their children feel very good…happy.” Parents have also shared with Gomez their astonishment that, on the beach or in the water, their kids often play happily with neurotypical children that they know from school. In school, those same kids are often very mean to their autistic kids. The concept of bullying is an appropriate, but somewhat indirect segue to Gomez’s second career…

Gomez is an aspiring MMA fighter. She trains every night. “It’s therapy for me,” she relays.

There’s a strange twist here. Shouldn’t the ocean be her therapy?

I ask:

“What you say about therapy…That for me is out there (I point to the ocean). When you are in the ocean you feel peace, like you are being taken care of. When you do MMA you need to fight. You need to be aggressive. You need to be not afraid…Tell me how the natural aggression that you need to be a successful MMA fighter, how do you juxtapose feeling that MMA is your therapy, spiritually, with the peace that you get from the ocean?”

“(When I do MMA) I am scared. And that is what I need. I need to learn to feel well with myself when I am scared. When I do MMA I feel well with my…shadows.”

But she felt the need to clarify afterwards: “But when I am in the ocean I also sometimes scared because when you see the big wave…” We laughed.

“But in MMA I can’t cry, or scream.”

Sea lions often come up to nap

Getting to Arica is a 32-hour trek. Long flight to Bogota, long flight to La Paz, Bolivia (fascinating city. Stay for a couple of days if the altitude sickness doesn’t destroy you). And then finish the journey with an 11-hour, unheated bus ride from the cold mountains of La Paz to Arica. Repeat after 5 nights.

Arica weather, if you were wondering, is somewhat the same, 66-76 degree high temperature, every day of the year. The sea buttresses a large desert, and therefore Arica is a barren climate, with almost no rain.

Great beaches or not, trips like this gave me unreal confidence as a young (however unknowing) autistic. In remote travel, you learn to ask for the help of others—you need other people (and they need you). Consequently, you meet more people, more strangers, and hear more beautiful stories; shared more freely by the sea.

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