URI Helps Kids with Disabilities Get Ready for School

Nathan Quimby catches a wave.

Eight-year-old Ronnie Oatley of Coventry can’t speak with words but he can certainly tell others what he wants.

The boy with a small build and shaggy surfer-style brown hair is wearing a snug wetsuit on this dreary, chilly June afternoon at Narragansett Town Beach. He and about thirty other kids with special needs are attempting to hang ten in the crashing waves with help from individual surfing coaches. Oatley’s playing in the water with University of Rhode Island junior Erica Ball, a kinesiology major and volunteer surf coach, but all of a sudden, he retreats from the shore and runs up the beach toward his mother. He’s shivering.

“Are you freezing buddy? Do you want to get changed?” says Ball, trailing him in her own wetsuit.

“Do I need to take him up?” asks Cindie Oatley, his mother.

“I don’t know. What do you think? He’s shivering,” says Ball, who is also from Coventry.

“All done?” Cindie asks her son.

Ronnie, rosy-cheeked, his lower lip trembling just a bit, is glancing longingly at a yellow surfboard — with Peter Pan’s name scrawled on its side — lying on the sand next to his mother. He grunts and gestures toward it. “Want more?” Cindie asks.

Ronnie waves his arms and his eyes light up. Ball looks at him and then Ronnie’s mother, shrugs her shoulders with a smile, picks up the surfboard and then she and Ronnie and the board — more than double the boy’s height — turn around and head back into the icy waves together.

“This is big. He just asked for the board,” Cindie Oatley says. Ronnie has trouble paying attention in school, but once he gets out on the water, she says instructors have his full attention. “When I tell you that for two months straight, this is the highlight of our week, that kid, he may not know how to speak, you don’t think he understands, but let me tell you something. He knows the way here, and when we’re driving here, he knows where we’re going.”

Ronnie is autistic and non-verbal. He’s going into third grade at Washington Oak School in Coventry where he’s a student in a self-contained classroom. He uses an iPad equipped with photos depicting wants and needs to communicate. He and his brother, Ryan Booth from Exeter, fifteen and also on the autism spectrum, come to Narragansett Town Beach every Tuesday and Thursday in May and June to participate in a program called Catching Waves for Health, now in its third year.

The program is run by Emily Clapham, Ed.D., assistant professor of kinesiology at URI. Through grants — from the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, the John E. Fogarty Foundation and URI — that fund surfboard and wetsuit rentals, and equipment donations (wetsuits for volunteers) from Peter Pan Surf Academy, they are able to get thirty-five children with special needs, ages four to twenty-one, and their siblings, into the ocean to learn how to surf. Various disabilities and health problems include Down syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and others.

It’s all part of a study Clapham is leading to analyze the benefits of surfing and ocean therapy on children with a variety of special needs. “He’s getting so much sensory input from the waves that it’s helping him focus,” says Cindie Oatley, pointing at Ronnie. “Look at her having his attention out there.”  

This year’s study is called “Catching Waves for Health III: Exploring the Benefits of a Surf Program on Children with Disabilities,” but Clapham and other researchers have already published several other articles in various medical journals. She’s also worked with Peter Panagiotis (yes, that’s Peter Pan) and others to develop a wetsuit for children with Down syndrome.

Clockwise from left: Timothy Burns helps Elise Kaplan on the board. Karin Conopask coaches Allie Babineau. Tessa Eagan hangs ten.

Underneath their wetsuits, all the kids are wearing Suunto heart rate monitors strapped across their bare chests that record data such as heart rate, caloric expenditure, stress level and VO2 max (peak oxygen intake). Each child has an individual fitness profile and all of the information obtained during exercise is downloaded into a program called Firstbeat on Clapham’s office computer. The average calories burned during a one-hour surf session is 300 to 400.

Student volunteers, most from URI, are paired up with the kids for guidance, and they hire their own lifeguards to monitor safety on the beach. Not only is the surfing program beneficial to the children who participate and their parents, but it’s also helping the students. The kinesiology majors are hoping to become future physical education teachers; this program gives them a chance to work with special needs students. “It’s an experiential learning piece that I added to my class,” says Clapham. “Getting that hands-on experience working with children, and putting theory into practice.”

One of the grad students from Narragansett, Jessica McKinstry, who is earning her master’s in kinesiology, marvels at the transformations of both the children and students. “It makes you comfortable with yourself and the way you interact with them. Some of the children do not have the best verbal or social skills, so you learn to work through that and find ways around it.”  

The program improves socialization and interaction with other kids. “We have one little boy when he first got here earlier this year, he wouldn’t talk to any of us. Now he’s running around talking to everyone,” McKinstry says.

Meanwhile, fifteen-year-old Allie Babineau of Wakefield hoists herself on her board, stands on her legs, bends her knees and rides a wave all the way into shore leaving her coach standing in chest-deep water cheering her on. The tenth grader has Asperger’s syndrome and her mother, Anne Babineau, says it’s a relief to have this program, because it’s something that Allie can do, and do well. She attended the Bradley School in South County for six-and-a-half years, and will be attending a new school this fall. Before surfing, Allie couldn’t handle unpredictability, and she had to sit out on many activities because of her behavior. “I wasn’t sure how she’d react to the unpredictable weather, the different coaches. I thought is it going to be rough? How is she going to handle the noise of the surf and getting water up her nose?” says Anne Babineau. “But from the first day she was able to stand on the board, it gave her so much confidence. She just blossomed.”


Allie’s brother Nate, age ten, a fifth-grader at Broad Rock Middle School in Wakefield, also gets a chance to surf through the program. He and his sister get competitive tackling the waves. Seldom, when one sibling has a disability and the other does not, do the siblings get to participate in activities together. “Often times, parents that have children with disabilities and without disabilities end up bringing their child with a disability to more programming, so it sort of becomes more about that child than the other children,” says Clapham. “I had a parent ask about bringing both of her twin daughters, and I said sure she can come swim with us. She shouldn’t have to be left behind or just sit there and wait. And then she has no inhibitions about working with kids with disabilities because her sister has disabilities, so she is a great resource for the group.”

Clapham runs adapted physical education programming for special needs children all year long. Other activities throughout the year include learning how to use a fitness center and swimming lessons at the URI pool. The swim class features adapted aquatics for children with special needs and their peers. It can cover everything from cardio and resistance training to fine-tuning motor and locomotive skills. The object is to get children excited about exercising both during and after school.

Clapham, an avid surfer, tennis player (she played tennis undergrad at URI and was a member of the surf club) and the mother of three children ages three and younger, still manages to fit active time into her busy schedule. She hikes with her family, runs with her sister who lives near her family in South Kingstown, and plays doubles tennis. “I am grooming my daughter to be my tennis partner some day. That’s my master plan. To always have someone to play tennis with me,” Clapham says.

Clockwise from top left: Katie Mangano gives Tessa Aiello a standing ovation. Ian Zuchowski rides a wave to shore. Christopher Lanctot helps Nate Babineau carry a board. Ingrid Hathaway stands on a board with help from Elizabeth Mannochio (left) and Amy Hamilton (right).

Today in her office, dressed in a work-appropriate bright floral dress and strappy heeled sandals, she pulls out different models of heart rate monitors from her cabinet and demonstrates how they work. The cabinet and shelves are decorated with photos of her own family and the kids she works with in the swimming program at the pool. A medal earned from running a marathon hangs from her bulletin board next to an autographed photo of Peter Pan, the local surfing legend who contributes to her program, catching a wave. She demonstrates one heart rate monitor, the Polar E600, which didn’t work for the kids last year; they were too tempted to hit the big red button, which stops and starts the recording. Another model, the Suunto, resists their tiny prodding fingers much better because the transmitter is worn under their clothes, rather than as a watch.

No matter the activity, the kids in the program wear the heart rate monitors. Clapham records every calorie burned, every step and every sign of stress exerted on their bodies. The kids find it motivating to follow their daily activity, to see how many minutes they’ve been active and how many steps they’ve taken. Each child is striving for sixty minutes of activity daily. “They are motivated by seeing the data and numbers on there, especially the kids with autism,” says Clapham. If, at the end of the day, the child isn’t at the sixty-minute mark, she says he or she might go walk their dog to try to reach the goal.

URI kinesiology students are encouraged to use other exciting new methods to get children interested in fitness. From low ropes courses to exergaming — incorporating fitness video games like Xbox 360 Kinect Sports and Wii Dance Dance Revolution — they are using play time as an incentive to get moving. “They love the games,” Clapham says. “We say after you do part of your fitness, then you can do five minutes of this game with your buddy, and then you can earn another five minutes.”
The aspiring physical education teachers use many different apps to bolster the curriculum. There are apps for teacher rubrics for lesson planning, apps for recording fitness data, and apps for pairing kids up through random selection. No longer do children have to worry about being the last kid picked in gym class. There’s an app for that. “We don’t encourage the captain selection anymore, because it’s so scarring for children,” says Clapham. “Who wants to be picked last? It’s awful.”

Clapham and URI kinesiology students are stressing more independent activities rather than traditional team sports. “One goal as teachers is to help them find an activity they enjoy so they will stay active on their own outside of class,” says Clapham. “To be active on your own outside, you aren’t always going to have that team resource as an adult. It’s easier to go for a run, go hiking or biking, or learn how to use a fitness center, go swimming, kayaking or surfing.”

Back on the beach, fifteen-year-old Ryan Booth — a high honors student going into ninth grade at Exeter-West Greenwich High School, and also on the autism spectrum — is taking a break from the break with URI junior and surf instructor, Amy Hamilton, a kinesiology major from Portsmouth. When he’s not in the water, he’s running down the beach chasing her. It’s Hamilton’s first year getting involved in the program. “I wanted to see how the waves help kids with disabilities exercise and how it benefits their socialization,” she says. “It’s one thing to learn about it in the classroom but when you’re actually out here doing it, it’s so much more beneficial.”

Ryan renounces other sports, but he loves surfing. “It’s a great sport. It’s very tricky, but once you get used to it you’re good at it,” he says. “I feel like I am king of the world, standing on the board, able to do something.”


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