Get On Board: Special Needs Skateboarding

How Skateboarding Builds Confidence in Children with Special Needs

by Laura Jane Brubaker

“What can we do to keep him active?”

That’s what Kelly found herself wondering, over and over, about her son, Jake, who is autistic and wanted to be physically engaged but had a hard time with things like organized sports.

“He has all this energy, but he can’t catch a ball; it’s just not his thing,” says Kelly, who asked that her last name not be used. “We needed something he would like and where there’s not a lot of pressure. He wants to make friends, but a lot of the challenges that go along with being part of a team are intimidating to him.”

Jake is far from alone in his distaste for traditional team-based activities.

“Organized sports suck,” says Ray Young, a longtime friend of Jake and Kelly. “Growing up, they just weren’t an option for me. I mean, I’d attempted it, but they’re just not joyful or fulfilling.”

Young is an experienced skateboarder. He grew up in Harrisburg’s multi-generational skateboarding culture – first learning to ride at age 10 – and taught skateboarding for the YMCA beginning in 1987. It seemed obvious to him that skateboarding offered a positive alternative to other athletics, so he began teaching Jake how to skateboard.

“Skateboarding seems like such a natural thing,” Kelly says. “People would go to the skate parks or a parking lot or something and just skate, and they all support each other. And that’s been exactly the right thing for Jake.”

Jake became one of many children with autism Young would teach to skate. In 2013, Young began raising money and brought on his friend and fellow skateboarder, Nate DeMuro, to help expand his efforts. His vision: Get On Board, an organization that would engage children with special needs in the unique joys and empowerment of skateboarding, totally free of cost.

“The whole concept is that it’s not competitive, except for with yourself. Organized sports are lacking for these guys,” says Young, referring to children on the autism spectrum, who can have a difficult time with the interpersonal pressure of team sports. “But children with autism and special needs just responded to this so well that we decided to take this as far as we can.”

Get On Board now exists as an organization of dedicated volunteers and instructors who have helped scores of children across the spectrum and beyond find confidence through skateboarding.

“We have a very specific approach to how we present this to children. And the interesting thing is that I’m using the same methodology with these children that I would any other children, we’re just a little more sensitive to their needs,” says Young, who draws on both his degree in education and his extensive martial-arts training in his work with Get On Board.

“One rule we have: we don’t say ‘no,’” says DeMuro. “We’re solution-providers, not limiters. We build the kid to the skill, and it works. We had this typical kid come to the clinic – functional, but clearly there are some issues.  He was so eager, and Ray built him to a push-off in a heartbeat, in six minutes.”

Every lesson is structured around hands-on, one-on-one training, and students learn skills at whatever pace with which they are comfortable. Lessons typically run a half-hour, but the instructors are free to extend the lesson if they feel their student would benefit. Alternatively, there’s no pressure if a student doesn’t feel like working on any particular skills that day.

“We don’t need them to skate; we need them to have a positive experience. That’s our only goal,” says DeMuro.

The members of Get On Board hope to soon have the funding to obtain a local facility for a program base. Reaching out for that funding can pose challenges, but the organizers are not perturbed.

“We’re willing to do what it takes, so long as we don’t lose our identity,” says DeMuro. “People can be skeptical, but we don’t play to that. We have a thing that works, and people either get it or they don’t.”

“People say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Well, why not?” asks Young. “We’re just doing what everybody else should be doing anyway. We’re trying to give people encouragement, we’re trying to give them a positive experience.”

That effort has come to fruition. Jake continues to participate in Get On Board and now skates outside of the program as well.

“He has trouble relating to other kids, but when he skates, he has kids who will go with him and involve him,” says Kelly. “That’s enormous, that’s such a big win for someone who struggles with making friends. He’s got this common activity he can do; he’s a peer.”

This article appears in the June 2016 issue of Harrisburg Magazine