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Lake Wylie children with autism find therapy at beach

If Julie De Sa has to drive four hours to the beach with a hurricane approaching for her son to feel accepted, then he'd better get his swimsuit ready.

De Sa is one member of a small fraternity of Lake Wylie parents who use the sand and surf to help overcome a social challenge common to their children - autism. Despite threats of Hurricane Irene approaching, De Sa wasn't letting son Luke, 6, miss his day on the water.

"For this one day," De Sa said, "we are accepted for something that we're usually rejected for."

On Aug. 24 at Folly Beach, the nonprofit group Surfers Healing - founded by professional surfers Israel and Danielle Paskowitz, themselves parents of an autistic child - hosted its fourth annual camp. Camps bring professional and experienced surfers who share their boards with autistic children, then award medals and do whatever else possible to support both child and family. Even Irene helped out by veering northeast.

"Seeing the smiles on the faces of the children and their parents is magical," said Amber Ayers, administrative coordinator for Surfers Healing and mom to her own camper. "The very best part is showing the parents their special kids can do so much more than ever imagined."

Unlike the De Sa family, Kim Garhart and son Nolan weren't making a repeat camp trip Aug. 22 when they hit Wrightsville Beach, N.C.

"It was our first year," Garhart said. "We could not keep him out of the water."

Nolan turned 6 on Friday. He seldom speaks but woke up in the middle of the night after surfing from 9 a.m. to almost 5 p.m. talking about the ocean, the sand, surfboards. It was the soundtrack to a joy his parents witnessed on the beach, in a boy refusing to leave the water.

"It was all in his face," Garhart said.

Luke and Nolan were two of five Lake Wylie children participating in Surfers Healing camps this year. That number is a byproduct, Garhart said, of a "school district that gets how important it is" to serve students with autism.

"Families from surrounding cities are moving into Clover just to be a part of the program," De Sa said.

As a solo sport focusing on pressure and balance, parents say surfing is soothing and therapeutic for autistic children. They also say parents are far more nervous than their children as the waves crash. There's no cost for camps, despite the need for about $75 per child for food, wet suits, surfboards, life jackets and insurance. Corporate sponsors and donations cover the costs.

Surfers Healing scheduled 16 camps this year, with stops in both Carolinas, California, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Virginia and Puerto Rico. They'll hold East Coast camps every summer, Ayers said, and hope to expand in 2012.

De Sa gets emotional "every year from the moment I step on the beach." The camp is an activity for her son, but it's also a refuge for her family.

"Everybody had the same thing in common," she said. "You were the outsider if you were typically developed. It's one day of the year no one stares or makes fun or seems bothered by our children's behavior."

That experience, no matter how short, makes all the travel and all the planning - even in the face of a hurricane - worth it, Garhart said.

"I never use the word normal, but for a split second, we felt like we're normal," she said. "All the families on the beach, we're living the same life."

It's a life Nolan, like Luke, will most likely live for a day again next year.

"I looked at my husband and said, 'This is going to be a new family tradition for us,' " Garhart said.