SARASOTA, Florida - "Here comes your wave. Ready?" surfer Benny Ray calls to Jonathan Dixon, just before sending the crouching boy and surfboard toward shore.
For the 7-year-old from Manatee County, this is a walk on the wet and wild side. With Ray's help, he's getting a salty taste of the sport.
For mom Dawn Dixon, clapping and blowing kisses from the shore, it's a moment to be savored. "When I see him doing something that's just fun and just being a little boy, it's the best," she says.
Jonathan is autistic, and the challenges began when he was just a few months old. That's when Dawn first noticed her baby was extremely sensitive to new sights, sounds, and situations. A simple crib mobile sent him into a fit.
"It was really scary," says Dawn. "His whole body was trembling."
As Jonathan grew, so did his parents' patience. "It's not his fault, but it takes a lot of patience...and compassion. I mean, I can't imagine what it must be like for him, not being able to process the world around him," Dawn says.
Jonathan attends Pinnacle Academy, a private school in Lakewood Ranch that caters to children with autism. Teachers there use a variety of techniques to keep kids engaged. Jonathan has problems focusing and keeping his body still, so occupational therapy is also part of the mix.
On this day, therapist Cara Putnam directs him to climb up a ladder, go down a slide, and then hop across the floor on some squeaky cushions. "He needs to complete a task from the beginning to end without getting distracted," explains Putnam.
But the school's director, child psychologist Kirstina Ordetx, has also found a way to help autistic kids and their families far outside the walls of the school.
For the past three years, CARE, a not-for-profit group started by Ordetx, has organized a surfing event called "Hang Ten for Autism." In September, volunteer surfers helped more than 100 "dudes" and "Gidgets" cry "Cowabunga!"
Surfing is not only fun, but Ordetx says it has therapeutic value. "Their body has to be very aware and fully integrated," she says. "And so, we see that children are very clear. Cognitively they're sharp, they're communicating better, making better eye contact, and really aware of what's happening around them."
Jonathan took part in the past two events and, on this day at Siesta Beach, he's getting a refresher course from Ray. Ray works at a local surf shop, but he's also going to college for occupational therapy. "I have a special place in my heart for these kids," he says.
With Ray's encouragement, Jonathan gives it his all and stands tall on the surf board. "Just like that!" he exclaims.
It seems when you're surfing, focus and fun roll together like the waves toward shore.
Later, back on the beach, Jonathan runs toward Ray and says, "Great surfing!"
He's a boy of few words, so you can tell this afternoon at the beach has been downright gnarly.
For more information on autism and the support group CARE click here.