Scott Caan – Surf Therapy for Autism

Scott Caan – Surf Therapy for Autism
Though he shares the rugged good looks of his father James, actor Scott Caan has steadily made his own way in Hollywood, with roles in films like Ocean’s Eleven (series), Gone in Sixty Seconds, and in HBO’s hit series Entourage. He’s also proven himself as a writer-director, with credits including Dallas 362, The Dog Problem, and the soon-to-be-released Mercy. But few of Caan’s fans are aware of his volunteer work with Surfers Healing, an organization which introduces autistic children to the joy of catching a wave.

Joined by Caan’s surfer buddy, Keith Kendall, ABILITY Magazine met with the artist at his Hollywood Hills home to discuss his work outside the limelight, and how helping others learn to surf has had a lasting impact on Caan’s life.

Chet Cooper: When did you guys start volunteering with Surfers Healing?

Scott Caan: About four years ago. Surfers Healing was doing an event in Malibu, inviting a bunch of families with autistic children to come and surf. These are kids who aren’t really big enough to surf by themselves, but instructors put them on the front of the boards and paddle out and stand them up in the waves.

When Keith and I had discovered Surfers Healing, they had 120 kids and maybe six, seven instructors. Since the waves weren’t really that big that day, the instructors asked a couple of the local surfers at Malibu to take some of these kids out. So Keith and I volunteered, and we’ve been doing it every year since then.

And now our friend, Jimmy Gamboa, has started another organization called TheraSURF where we’re taking kids with disabilities out surfing. The whole thing is getting bigger. I have a couple of kids I take out.

Cooper: When you say “take out,” you mean... kill?

Caan: (laughs) yeah, kill them.

Liz Angeles: I know that Life Rolls On has a similar arrangement, taking out people with disabilities. How is that different from what you’re doing with Surfers Healing and TheraSURF?

Caan: Well, I’ve only been involved with Life Rolls On for about a year. I met [Life Rolls On founder] Jesse Billauer a couple of years ago. With the autistic kids, we actually pick them up and stand them up on the boards. We don’t push them into waves and let them go like we would with someone like Jesse, who is paralyzed, but very capable in the waves. When Jesse surfs, of course we have people stacked up along the beach to rescue him in case he falls off or rolls over, but with autistic kids, we’re sort of just giving them the sensation of riding.

A lot of autistic kids don’t like to be touched. A lot of autistic kids are initially timid about getting into the ocean, so we kind of have to grab ‘em, yank ‘em, hold ‘em down on the board, paddle ‘em out, and force ‘em to do it. But I would say six times out of 10 times, kids who were kicking and screaming not to get into the water are pleading to surf once we take them back to shore. They’re like, “One more. One more. One more.”

Cooper: And then you start kicking and screaming, “I want to go home!”

Caan: (laughs) I’m like, “I’m tired. I can’t paddle any more!”

Cooper: They have to grab you and throw you on the board?

Caan: (laughs) Yeah. But it’s really amazing. I mean, I have this girl that I take all the time, named Olivia. She’s nine years old and she’s deaf and she’s autistic, and she does not want to get out of the water when we’re done. When I say it’s time to stop surfing and we paddle in, she throws a tantrum and gets mad at me and pouts and gives me dirty looks for an hour. (laughter)

But most of my experience with Life Rolls On, and it’s been limited, is that most of the people there have surfed before, and are wanting to surf again.

Keith Kendall: And it’s a different experience, because that’s specific to people who are paralyzed or paraplegic.

Caan: I did an event with Jesse at Zuma, and some of the guys there were like, “Do not hold on to me. Let me go,” just wanting to charge into big overhead waves by themselves. I remember being so amazed at the courage. I was out with this one guy, waves were crashing, and there wasn’t a lot of space in between set waves, and we were getting hammered. I looked at him like, “Should we go in [to shore]?” And he was like, “No, let’s keep going.”

Angeles: This is a former surfer?

Caan: I actually don’t know if he had surfed before, but he was charging and he wanted to surf.

Angeles: This is with Life Rolls On?

Caan: Yeah. I couldn’t believe the balls and the guts and the strength he had to just go again and again. We crashed, and he was underwater, and I pulled him out and I thought for sure he’d be like, “I’m done.” But instead he was like, “Let’s go. Let’s get another one. That one was lame.” And I thought, “Jeez, this guy has just got heart.”

Cooper: So you have to be a lifeguard at the same time? After you wipe out, you’ve got to grab them and get them back on the board?

Caan: Yeah, but they do it pretty well. I mean, for Jesse’s events, there are usually people stacked up every 10 feet. You have the on-shore team, the knee-high team, the middle team, which is in waist-high water, and then you have the deep-water team.

Cooper: So you only go out with them on a certain size of wave? You can’t really do it on really—
Keith Kandell: Jesse goes big.

Caan: Jesse goes big. At the event they did at Huntington, I got there and I was like, “First of all, I don’t want to surf in these waves.” (laughter) “And I certainly don’t want to take these guys out in these waves.” I was nervous, and I was hoping that they had called it off. And I was surfing with a lady named Alyson, who—

Cooper: Was she Miss Wheelchair?

Caan: Miss Wheelchair, yes. And she looked at me and she was kind of nervous. She was like, “How is it out there?” And I was like, “It’s fine. It’s nothing.” And then I turned to the main instructor and said, “We’re not doing it. We’re not taking them out.” I didn’t want to go out there. I was worried about getting sucked into the pier myself, let alone having to deal with Alyson. But we got Alyson into six waves.

Angeles: Is it all done in the same manner with everybody when you guys take them out there?

Caan: Yeah. But some guys have different approaches. Like, there’s this one guy, he’s paralyzed from the waist down, so he can paddle, and he doesn’t like you to help him paddle, he just likes you to help keep him lined up. But it’s different with everyone.

Kandell: And in a place like Malibu, it’s more satisfying, I think, to take people who wouldn’t be able to surf on their own. The people who surf in Malibu are sort of a privileged lot, generally speaking, because you’re out in the middle of the day and there’s a hundred guys, and they all feel like it should be their wave.

But that state of mind totally changes when you have someone with you that couldn’t be out there on their own, and they’re so happy. And it’s so much more rewarding. Also, when you’ve been surfing for so long that the initial thrill of riding a waist-high wave kind of goes away, you relive it all over again when you’re surfing with someone who doesn’t get to do it often.

Angeles: You probably have a lot of great memories with the people you take out there to surf... continued in ABILITY Magazine

ABILITY Magazine
Articles in the Scott Caan issue; Humor — I Do?; Ashley’s Column — Breaking News; ABILITY House — Laura’s Story; Sen. Tom Harkin — SSA Backlog; Bonner Paddock — King of the Mountain; Adam Lee — Inspiration Through Inflation; Conan's Concussion Junction — Head Injury for Dummies; Bad Boys — EEOC Tackles Job Discrimination; Straight From the Heart — Vascular Disease and You; Pluck O’ The Irish — Exploring the Emerald Isle; Taking the Sky — Paraplegic Adventurer Flies Again; USBLN — Business Leadership Celebrates Disability; Scott Caan — Entertainer Makes Waves for Autism; Blue Cross — Insurance Expert on Health Care; The Skinny On Obesity— Breaking Down the BMI; Tap Into Your Potential — An Excerpt from Wise Mind; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

Oct/Nov 2009

Excerpts from the Scott Caan issue:

Scott Caan — Interview

Pluck O’ The Irish — Exploring the Emerald Isle

Blue Cross — Insurance Expert on Health Care

Conan's Concussion Junction — Head Injury for Dummies

The Skinny on Obesity - Breaking Down the BMI

Straight from the Heart — Vascular Disease and You

Humor — I Do?

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