A few years ago, Aiden Carroll's anxiety was so bad that his mum Alina was worried he would never be able to leave his room.
Which is why - even though surfing is now a vital part of his life - it's still such a shock for the Woonona mum to see him standing up and catching waves at a busy beach.
"Oh my goodness, look at him go, look at that face!" she exclaimed, as her eldest son rode his surfboard towards her with a huge smile.
Aiden, 15, and his 13-year-old brother Braith, who both have autism, were among the 60 families taking part in Port Kembla's first Surfing the Spectrum learn-to-surf training day.
The organisation was awarded $10,000 from NSW Ports' grants program to deliver the free event for young people at Port Kembla Beach on November 18.
The Carroll family first discovered the therapeutic powers of surfing about five years ago, and it is now a part of their daily life, with a surf coach employed as one of their support workers.
Ms Carroll said Aiden had a number of different neurological conditions, including Tourettes, OCD and extreme anxiety, which have been helped by spending time in the ocean.
"When he's having a dissociative episode, his surf coaches will get him on a board... and he will be back. It's out of this world, it fixes everything," Ms Carroll saud.
"Or I'll call his surf coach and say 'Aiden's got Tourette's ticking', and I know that going in the ocean that will help him for the next few days."
She said regular surfing - which works on things like core strength, breathing, and the sensation of being in cold water - before school helped her sons manage their symptoms and stay in class for longer.
"But not just about surfing, it's about the community and meeting new people and making connections because a lot of kids with autism are so isolated," Ms Carroll said.
"I was so worried that Aiden would spend his whole life in his room - he wouldn't even let us drive past the train station but then we got involved with our local surf school and it's just been life-changing."
He has been involved in a number of Surfing the Spectrum events, going to various beaches up and down the NSW and Queensland coast - which had given him independence and broadened his horizons.
Surfing the Spectrum director and co-founder Tahlia Anderson said her events were a chance to share a love of the beach with children with autism and their families, and give then a safe space to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of the ocean.
"We train local surf instructors and community volunteers in an autism-informed way to offer these free learn-to-surf events that improve participants' health and well-being and also promote diversity and inclusion," she said.
"Teaching water safety is also a critical part of the program as sadly children with autism are three times more likely to drown than neurotypical children, so equipping them and their families with skills to stay safe in the surf is also a vital part of our surf school."
Autism-informed training for volunteers and local businesses supporting the Port Kembla event took place earlier in the week.
The other Illawarra recipients of the grants program included the Coomaditchie United Aboriginal Corporation, which will build a greenhouse, garden area and decking for a community education space, and Windang Surf Life Saving Club which will buy an Inflatable Rescue Boat.
Marine Rescue Port Kembla will install electronic signage at Port Kembla boat ramp to improve maritime safety for boaters, while Nareena Hills Public School P & C Association will purchase a shipping container to store library books and musical instruments, to protect its resources against recurring flooding in the area.
NSW Ports CEO Marika Calfas said the organisation was proud to support local events like Surfing the Spectrum.
"Surfing the Spectrum is one of the beneficiaries of our NSW Ports 2023 Community Grants Program that awarded grants of up to $25,000 for groups delivering positive programs and projects in the communities around our ports and intermodal terminals," she said.
"This weekend's event is a wonderful way to bring local families together by giving children with autism and their siblings the chance to learn how to surf, while delivering water safety training that's important for everyone living along the coast."
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