Surf Therapy Has Been 'Beyond Amazing' For 7-Year-Old Pearl

Holly Tregenza
Swellnet Dispatch

The first time seven-year-old Pearl Fryer stood up on a surfboard was during a therapy session.

"I feel proud because I like myself catching waves," she said.

Pearl, who is autistic, is a student of occupational therapist Gabbie Johnson on the New South Wales South Coast.

Ms Johnson's surf therapy program in Broulee and Narooma is improving the lives of children with a disability or neurodiversity.

"Pearl's just so proud of herself every time she gets up on a wave. It's really nice to see that positive self talk," Ms Johnson said.

"Surf therapy is using the ocean and the adventure of surfing to be able to facilitate positive therapy outcomes."

Pearl Fryer has been learning to catch waves with Gabbie Johnson (Photo: Vanessa Milton)

Beach classroom

Bringing therapy to the beach has been transformative for Ms Johnson's students and their families.

"In all those big surf schools, you're in a lesson with eight other children, and I don't think that's successful for a lot of the children we work with," Ms Johnson said.

"They need a more individualised approach if they do want to learn to surf or participate in the water."

Pearl has reached a number of her therapeutic goals during her surf lessons (Photo: Vanessa Milton)

Pearl's mum Paige Fryer said the surf lessons had helped their entire family feel more connected.

"It's really special to be together on the beach," she said.

While the outdoor classroom is a whole lot of fun, Pearl has also achieved some major therapeutic goals.

"One of the traits of being autistic is tippy-toe walking, so not only does surf therapy help with emotional regulation and so many other things, it also helps with balance, strength and coordination," Ms Fryer said.

"It's beyond amazing and beautiful to be able to watch Pearl grow with her surfing journey."

Pearl is now able to stand and surf the waves, and has also grown in confidence (Photo: Paige Fryer)

From the clinic to the coast

Ms Johnson started the program after working with children in local schools and identifying a need for therapy to be delivered in a community-based setting.

"The clients I typically see are children with a range of different disabilities or neurological differences. A typical diagnosis would include cerebral palsy, or autism," she said.

"The main thing is that it's really meaningful for the children as well, this is an environment that's meaningful to them."

Each child is different, and while some do aim to stand up on a board, others engage in water-based play or spend time on the sand.

"One of the boys I work with drew the letter 'c' for his name in the sand for first time ever, in any kind of setting," Ms Johnson said.

"His mum was so excited … she was in tears, I was in tears, it was heartwarming to see."

In a region crying out for specialists, the surf program is one of only a handful of alternative therapies available for parents on the coast.

"I just hope [my students] learn that sometimes in life wipe-outs happen but we've got to get back up on our board and try again,' Ms Johnson said.

As for Pearl, there is certainly nothing stopping her from catching her next big break.

"Yeah," she said. "It's easy."

// Holly Tregenza and Vanessa Milton
© Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.


Rusty Forest's picture
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Rusty Forest Sunday, 19 Feb 2023 at 2:57pm

Thank you for putting in the time for your students and making a massive difference for them and their families, as to what can be achieved. I teared up while reading this!

zenagain's picture
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zenagain Sunday, 19 Feb 2023 at 3:38pm

Me too.

My nephew and God son is Autistic allbeit relatively high functioning. I also am involved through my work with people with intellectual disabilities.

Anything that can enrich their lives and also help them connect at any level with nature, their families and others can only be good.

All the very best to Gabbie and her valuable work.

seeds's picture
seeds's picture
seeds Sunday, 19 Feb 2023 at 4:00pm

This is great. Skill development in so many ways not just the act of surfing. Social Role Valorisation, normalisation and community integration that benefit the participants and the wider society jointly.

velocityjohnno's picture
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velocityjohnno Sunday, 19 Feb 2023 at 4:29pm

That's a wonderful story to finish the weekend. Well done Pearl, Gabbie & best wishes for the program. Have seen surfing run for Type 1, and they do an awesome program at Ocean Grove for disabled surfers over summer, forget the name. I think there's also Oceanmind for groms here, too.

jezza64's picture
jezza64's picture
jezza64 Sunday, 19 Feb 2023 at 7:29pm

Thanks VJ, I’m President of the Disabled Surfers Association Ocean Grove branch, next event is Sunday 5th March. 8:30 start. Last event we had 200 volunteers on the beach and in the water, providing over 50 participants with the opportunity to catch some waves. About 80 registered for our next event. Smiles on Dials, yeeewww. :)

velocityjohnno's picture
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velocityjohnno Tuesday, 21 Feb 2023 at 5:52pm

Good on you Jezza - too true, the smiles of the disabled surfers are a memory I keep from when doing it. I was amazed that such a supportive setup can be arranged so that no matter the disability, a surfer can catch a wave. Heaps of support on the beach and not a few with experience/lifesaving... Great stuff!

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southernraw's picture
southernraw Sunday, 19 Feb 2023 at 4:44pm


Patate's picture
Patate's picture
Patate Monday, 20 Feb 2023 at 9:20pm

Well done pearl and all

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Ben Elvy Tuesday, 21 Feb 2023 at 10:49am

Wish this story had a LIKE button

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stanfrance Tuesday, 21 Feb 2023 at 10:51am

Very cool. Congrats to all involved. What an amazing impact!

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daboots Tuesday, 21 Feb 2023 at 7:39pm

Volunteering for the Disabled Surfers Association on a few occasions were some of most incredible moments I've ever experienced as a surfer and as a human being. I highly recommend everyone to get involved.

SeaHealing's picture
SeaHealing's picture
SeaHealing Tuesday, 28 Feb 2023 at 12:01pm

Just what the Dr ordered! Kids need space and exercise and risk, not computers and phones all day long, dulling their imagination and diluting their brain cells, nor farma drug therapy. Fresh and a safe environment to learn in is so important. Well done, Gabbie and Pearl. keep it up.