Atticus Lambert is smiling ear to ear as he catches his first ever wave on a sunny autumn morning.

“I used to be a bit scared of coming to the beach,” the 12-year old says.

“Are you scared now?” his mother asks.


A young boy with a red life vest stands on a surfboard in whitewash, pushed by a man.

Ocean Heroes is a charity providing free surf lessons to children with Autism in WA, like Atticus Lambert. (ABC News: Kenith Png)

Atticus is among about 100 children taking part in surf sessions that morning at Perth’s Trigg Beach.

They’re run by Ocean Heroes, which offers free monthly 30-minute workshops for children on the autism spectrum.

They had more than 1,300 participants come to their Perth events this season, and many others come to events in New South Wales, Queensland and regional Western Australia.

A young boy standing next to a surfboard looks at a man in a yellow rashie giving him instructions.

Atticus Lambert during his surfing lesson.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

The sessions always include two volunteers to one child, and start with participants being run through the basics on the sand, like how to pop up and stand on the board.

After catching as many waves as they can with the help of volunteers, they head back to the shore and get a certificate.

A young boy with a red life vest kneels on a surfboard high-fiving a man.

Atticus Lambert is all smiles after his session.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

“It was very bumpy and so much fun,” Atticus says.

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Safety in the spotlight

Luke Hallam helped found the group in Perth in 2016 and said it aims to help children with autism — who are three times more likely to drown than neurotypical children in Australia — access the ocean safely.

“If they’re new to the ocean, we’ll teach them where to get into the water, where not to get into the water,” he says.

“If they’ve been surfing for a long time with us, we can actually teach them how to duck dive a wave, how to get out of a rip. We set really good boundaries here.

A man in a blue shirt smiles by the beach. He is wearing a black setsuit underneath.

Ocean Heroes Co-Founder Luke Hallam (in blue) with volunteers.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

“When they come to the ocean with their families outside of our events, they know they can’t go into the ocean without somebody there to help them.”

Mr Hallam says their first event only attracted 20 people, and now they get up to 150.

“We get participants who come down who have literally never been on the sand, to participants now who have surfed with us for eight years,” he says.

“They come down here, they learn that it’s okay to fail, they learn that if you fall off a wave, it’s okay to try again.

“They take that back into their school life, their family life, their social lives.

Two men on sand instruct a child on a surfboard.

More than 1,000 people have attended Ocean Heroes programs this season.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

“Our goal is to make sure we are Australia wide, so every single autistic person in our country gets access to the ocean safely.”

They expanded to Sydney last year, and held their first sessions in Noosa in QLD, and the Northern Rivers in NSW this month.

Confidence building

“Cool, awesome and terrifying,” is how another participant, 10-year-old Mitchell Barton-Tillett, describes his time on the water.

Mitchell’s mother, Kat Barton, say her son is building his confidence with every paddle.

A woman and a boy in a life vest smile for the camera.

Mitchell Barton-Tillett and his mum say the program has been great for his confidence.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

“He gets dumped but he gets straight back onto the board and seeing the smile on his face and seeing the smile on everybody’s face, everybody’s so supportive,” she says.

“You see them get up, you give them a cheer, that sense of community is great.”

Social challenges

From physios to football players and surfers, the people who give up their time to run the sessions come from different walks of life.


Volunteer Zoe Woodward is a support worker and says many children with autism face huge social challenges.

“A lot of them are homeschooled or sometimes find it hard to socialise, but coming down here, they can just get out of their head and just enjoy being with strangers and make some really good friends,” she says.

“Seeing a smile on their face is what makes it.”

A blonde woman in a white rashie and green wetsuit smiles at the camera.

Zoe Woodward says children really respond to the being in the surf.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

Sasha Goranova, another volunteer, says the program helps tackle the dangers children with autism face in the water in a way that is fulfilling and exciting.

“Some parents might not be comfortable taking kids to the beach, it gets those kids more comfortable,” she says.

Preventing tragedy

Justine Leavy is an associate professor at Curtin University and researches the prevalence of drowning and how to prevent it.

She says many children drown due to a lack of supervision or because they overestimate their ability to swim — but that was especially acute with neurodiverse children.

A woman named Justine Leavy smiles for the camera.

Dr Justine Leavy is an associate professor in Curtin University’s School of Population Health.(Supplied)

“Kids with diverse needs, and specifically autism spectrum disorder, often might wander off, or they could be very quiet,” Dr Leavy says.

“And those are the factors that often contribute to people drowning.”

She also says active supervision, teaching people to know their limits, having up-to-date CPR qualifications, and knowledge around how to use a life jacket are key ways to prevent deaths in the water.

Members of the public at a crowded beach during sunset.

The ocean presents a unique set of dangers, which the Ocean Heroes program aims to address.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

While most drownings tend to occur during summer across the population, Dr Leavy says children with autism are more likely to drown in winter, in lakes or dams.

She says the skills learnt in a program like Ocean Heroes “could prevent drowning”, alongside the social benefits.

However, different types of waterways in Australia like pools, oceans or dams all present unique risks.

“Knowledge of water skills and water safety is transferable, but knowing conditions is not,” she says.

A group of people at the beach with surfboards.

An Ocean Heroes surfer enjoying the ride.(ABC News: Kenith Png)

Back on the sand overlooking Perth’s pristine surf, Atticus recounts the day’s events with his parents, huddled under the warmth of a towel. 

A boy holding a towel by the beach and his mother next to him with her arm around his shoulder.

Atticus says the program is helping him to feel safer. (ABC News: Kenith Png)

“Do they make you feel safe?” his mother asks.

“Yes,” he says.


Posted 3h ago3 hours agoSun 26 May 2024 at 12:18am, updated 1h ago1 hours agoSun 26 May 2024 at 2:09am