Rec therapy students help children with autism enjoy the pleasure of fishing


On an afternoon in mid-November, on the banks of Cullowhee Creek on the Western Carolina University campus, a small-scale fishing derby was under way. Three boys, working with WCU recreational therapy students, took turns fly fishing for trout in the creek’s quick, shallow waters across from the Ramsey Regional Activity Center.

Professional fishing guide Alex Bell MAEd ’86 (left) and WCU recreational
therapy student Megan Hunt help Austin Coburn pull a brook trout out of
Cullowhee Creek.

Many boys welcome a chance to fish, but for Austin Coburn, an eighth-grader at the HUB School of Alternatives; Isaac Ralston, a fourth-grader at Cullowhee Valley School; and Dillon Frady, a sixth-grader at Cullowhee Valley School, the opportunity was especially sweet. All three boys are on the autism spectrum, and recreational activities specifically adapted to their abilities are few.

WCU students Shawn Chapman and Megan Hunt organized the event as a project for a methods class taught by Jennifer Hinton, associate professor of recreational therapy. There is limited research on adaptive fly fishing, Hinton said, but the WCU students theorized it would benefit children on the autism spectrum physically, psychologically and socially. Autism affects the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function, according to the National Autism Association. The NAA reports that the disorder affects one in 150 people in the U.S. and is diagnosed four times more often in boys than girls.

Through the Adaptive Fly Fishing Institute, Alex Bell MAEd ’86 teaches adaptive fly fishing and also teaches fellow instructors in the practice. A professional fishing guide from Sylva and a retired principal at Smoky Mountain High School, Bell spent the semester coaching Chapman and Hunt on the project. Encouraging the children with each cast, he told them to “get ready, that one’s going to get bit.” The fish that wiggled free from hooks he termed LDRs – “long-distance releases.” Through his business, AB’s Fly Fishing Guide Service, Bell offers a day of free fly fishing on the Tuckaseigee River to members of the U.S. military recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fly fishing was adapted to the children’s abilities. For instance, when teaching the children to cast, the instructors asked them to aim for hula hoops on the ground rather than asking them to reference numbers on an imaginary clock face. “It was amazing the difference once we put down a visual cue. It improved their focus so much,” Bell said. Chapman or Hunt stood with each boy as he fished and helped with the casting motion. For the event, staff of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission stocked that section of Cullowhee Creek with about 40 brook trout from the State Fish Hatchery in Brevard named for Bobby N. Setzer ’57 MAEd ’60. The boys and their families were thrilled with the results, with each child catching a fish.