When Sonny's mum Laura wanted to find an activity that could help her son become more independent and develop self awareness and confidence, she didn't imagine it would be windsurfing.
But a year on, the nine-year-old, who has cognitive and peripheral vision issues, has become a regular at Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre under the guidance of Senior Watersports Instructor, James Hardy.
So what has windsurfing done for Sonny and how has Docklands run activity that not only caters for his needs but has seen it, in Laura's words, have a "magic" effect on her son? We chatted to James and Laura to find out.
This has been Sonny's second summer at Docklands. Why was watersports a good option for him?
Laura: I wanted him to become more 'free' and able to do something that takes him away from dependency on myself and others. To find a way for him to build his personal inner strength as well as physical. I feel being close to nature builds inner strength. Sonny can't follow rules of a game, but with watersports there's a natural understanding of the immediate environment he can tune in to.
How did he end up windsurfing?
James: Sonny started at Docklands in May 2016 and we tried pretty much everything from paddleboarding to Oppi sailing with all sorts in between. Windsurfing was one of the last things we tried but he seemed more interested by it so we stuck with it for longer. Windsurfing is very hands on and there was always a slight chance of falling in! He also likes he has his board and sail and doesn't always need someone on it with him.
What had to be taken into consideration for Sonny to progress?
James: His cognitive issues mean he has a lot of great questions about everything, especially new things, such as bits of kit or a change of routine. This means making sure he understands why we have it, why it feels the way it does, what it's made from etc, are all quite important. His imagination is incredible so the sail can become a door with a massive window as we're sailing, or the sound of the board moving through the water is like the board is eating the water. It all helps him understand how everything works and relates it to something familiar from day-to-day life. To cater for his vision issues we use equipment with very bright contrasting colours and different textures so he can make distinctions between different parts.
Laura: People simply don't understand cognitive disabilities. Sonny loves boundaries, real and perceptual, and likes to be challenged so long as he feels safe. James has great natural understanding, care and ability to work around Sonny's difficulties. There is great forward planning with Sonny's time slots and consideration is given to the fact he can get overwhelmed, so starting with one-on-one sessions at quiet times put him more at ease. There's also planned goal-setting, with the aim for his integration, when it's right, into small group learning. The strategy is discussed and planned and James has excellent communication skills. He just gets it.
So James, what do sessions look like?
James: I have made a few general adjustments to teach Sonny, mainly around session routines. When he was starting we towed his board and sail upwind with us both on, then I got him up the board. He could then sail on a run straight downwind with me paddling alongside on my board keeping him in the right direction and helping him. He's now confident with me sailing alongside him on my own kit, so is pretty much doing it alone. I give him challenges, such as jumps, as we go. It's more about having fun and giving it a go rather than working through a syllabus. In terms of kit, we've been using a Red Paddle Co Windsurf Wind SUP and 1.5m Tiki Rig.
What changes have you seen in Sonny since he's been windsurfing?
Laura: It took time for Sonny to be able to listen to and trust someone other than family. But there's been an unreal amount of improvement in many ways - physical strength, stamina, social skills, focus and being able to question. Most of all his confidence has improved so much and he's more self aware and self assured. It's magic. The muscle feedback when windsurfing also helps his OT and proprioception difficulties.
James: He's more independent and wants less and less help to do things. He's less fearful of new things, it still takes him a while to get used to it but is more willing to try. The biggest difference is he's more social and open to other people and doesn't shy away from new interactions so much. This was noticeable when I introduced another instructor, Iona, to our sessions. He asks her lots of questions and is happy for her to be involved.
How can Sonny's windsurfing go to the next stage?
James: He's got windsurfing on a run down to a T and is trying a few ankle drags and other basic freestyle moves. His favourite bit is catching a gust and moving as fast as he can go. Next we'll move on to some simple downwind steering. Further down the line we're looking to get him involved with other children in more of a group session. I've also thought about trying to make some type of tandem windsurf board from what we have at the centre so he and I could windsurf together to maybe help his learning.
Laura: He loves the kit! I was thinking of getting an inflatable board so we can all have fun on holiday too. The next stages are to probably introduce more skills and strength, so perhaps doing more and creating waves and more challenging scenarios on the board. The benefits are so visible we're keen to offer Sonny more opportunities to pursue his newfound love of wind and water.