Amick Olson crumpled onto the 10-foot orange paddle board and pressed his hands to his the ears. His flower-print swimming trunks were soaked in saltwater. His blond hair was tousled. His face was scrunched into a ball of frustration.
Amick is 6 years old and autistic. He covers his ears when he's overwhelmed, and at that moment, he was a bit overwhelmed. But not in a bad way.
His father, Lars, floated in the warm water next to him. Amick wobbled to his feet. One hand clutched his dad. The other stayed on his ear.
"It's all you, Amick," Lars told him.
Then, for just a moment, Amick let go. He stood on the board by himself. He flashed a crooked smile. He was surfing.
Father and son high-fived.
Profound moments like Amick's filled a 100-yard stretch of water off Treasure Island beach on Saturday morning.
The organization Surfers for Autism, which was founded in 2007, holds dozens of events like this every year in Florida and beyond. Local surfers in each community volunteer to teach as many as 200 autistic children how to surf. Registrants pay no fees, and area businesses donate food and drinks.
About 2,500 people attended Saturday's festivities, the second annual event in Tampa Bay.
The air was warm, the sky was blue, and the Gulf of Mexico was cooperative. For hours, children as young as 4 floated on dozens of brightly colored boards spread across the water like lily pads. Parents cheered and snapped photos from the beach.
At these events, the parents say, their kids can be themselves. They can scream and run and, sometimes, break down. No one stares. No one judges. No one wonders why that one child just won't stay quiet.
Amick's parents, both originally from Florida, drove 18 hours from Toledo, Ohio, to attend. They helped five other families come as well.
"So many times, our kids are the strange ones," said Amick's mom, Brooke. "Here, nobody is strange."
A few feet from her son's first solo, Tom "T-Flats" Flaherty pushed a lime green board toward the beach. William Brady, 17, lay sprawled across the top.
"Paddle, paddle, paddle," Flaherty yelled. "Up, up, up."
William popped to his feet, bent his knees and extended his hands out on each side.
He knew what a good surfer was supposed to look like.
William attends Steinbrenner High School in Lutz. He's aware of his disability. He doesn't like big crowds, but he knows it's important to try new things. He can't play team sports but surfing, he thought, might be something he could do.
"He really wants to fit in," said his mother, Wendy Brady, watching from the beach. "This is a step for him."
Later, at the other end of the beach, Alex, Emma and Nicolas Duncan of Miramar climbed onto the same orange board. They are triplets, age 7 and soon to enter third grade. They all have the same brown hair and same dark eyes and same button noses. The kids look alike, but one of them is different.
Nicolas has autism.
Diane and Don Duncan had taken their kids to four Surfers events before the one on Treasure Island, but Nicolas had never stood on a board. He would only sit.
Emma balanced on his left, Alex on his right. In the middle, Nicolas held his siblings' hands.
The triplets, and their smiles, looked the same.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.