A Father's Small Hope
Credit: Photograph by Susan Meiselas / Magnum
That night we go back to Zuckerman's house and set Luke up in the media room. I'm emotionally spent, and when Zuckerman's wife Stephanie asks me how it went, I find myself, for perhaps the first time ever, speechless. Luke is anything but; he runs to the TV screen, naming all the objects that he sees: tree, dog, kite, shade. Suddenly, we can't shut this kid up. He isn't just cheerful or glad to be on land; he's positively thrilled with himself. Snuggling in beside me on the leather sectional, he offers me the back of his head to nuzzle, cackling as I oblige. It is unseemly to kiss your child on another man's couch, and embarrassed, I tender apologies."

Please," says Zuckerman. "Look how happy he is. I've seen it over and over: surfing magic."

Though the notion of surfing as therapy for autism is so novel that no one has studied it, a number of eminent neuroscientists I talk with later are willing to venture a guess as to why it might work. "We know that motor-skill learning has a broad-ranging impact on the nervous system," says William Greenough, an expert on brain development at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, where studies of Fragile X are conducted. "There's increased blood flow to crucial neurons, and the reshaping of abnormal structures in the front brain. But beyond that, surfing may be a vehicle to an emotional breakthrough, a way of reaching under the mask and perhaps connecting to kids like these." Peter Vanderklish, a neurobiologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, who works on the synaptic mechanisms of learning, offers a slightly more personal take. "I've been surfing for close to 30 years, and my sense is that the sky-and-sea beauty of the sport turns the focus of these kids inside out. They're pulled out of themselves by having to live in the moment, and all their anxieties are pushed aside," he says. "There's the whole sensory-motor thing of being in tune with your body and enjoying the sheer physical effort, but at the end of the day surfing's about self-expression, and for a couple of hours these kids can think like artists." Adds Paskowitz, "This is a sport that grounds you in both the spiritual and the physical. You get on that board and suddenly you're part of something bigger. There's no word for it, other than magic."

Since the day five years ago when Zuckerman got a call from the mother of a child with autism, he has surfed, free of charge, with dozens of children who run the clinical gamut. Blind kids, deaf kids, quadriplegics – he has put them in the water, with grand results. "It's the same thing each time," he says. "They panic at first, then get totally amped on the wave."Zuckerman, who is friends with Paskowitz, drops everything in early September to host the Long Beach leg of Surfers Healing. He places himself, his surfboards, and a dozen or so instructors at the disposal of the daylong event. "It's like nothing you've ever seen before," Zuckerman says, "between the crowds and media, plus the 60 or 80 families with their kids. They can't stop laughing, or hugging you till it hurts. It's by far the best day of my year."

He asks us to stay for dinner, but Luke is fading and I need to get him home for his evening meds. Walking to the car, I keep babbling thanks, saying it's been a day I'll never forget. "Oh, and I meant to ask you, what was Luke saying when you guys caught that first wave in?"Zuckerman laughs, his big shoulders rolling. "Well, he was fussing and fighting the whole way out, saying exactly what he thought of old Elliot. But when that big wave came and I threw him on the board, he was yelling, 'Whee, whee, whee!' all the way in."