See the Individual, Not the Diagnosis: Lessons from Bonnie Monroe of Freedom Sailing Camp of Florida

Mikayla Pantano 

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, US Sailing sat down with Bonnie Monroe of Clearwater, FL, founder of Freedom Sailing Camp of Florida, Inc. The camp provides a safe, enriching, and affordable sailing program for high-functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Monroe meets students where they are without asking for any diagnosis information, assessing how they react out on the water to determine what type of instruction they need. With her emphasis on individual experience, Freedom Sailing Camp aims to prove to students and their parents that they are so much more than their diagnosis. Monroe instills in her campers that their diagnosis does not define what they can or cannot do and expands their horizons by creating growth opportunities for their sailing abilities, life skills, and community engagement. 

Bonnie and Mark’s Journey to Freedom 

Monroe started sailing in 2010 when searching for an outdoor activity she and her son, Mark, could do together. Mark has high functioning autism and was diagnosed at age three. Monroe noted that many kids on the autism spectrum preferred to stay in their rooms rather than get outside and socialize, so she wanted to find a program that would help Mark do both. She started Mark in a sailing program when he was 11 years old, and despite not needing constant help, they were constrained by the community sailing center not having someone to supervise Mark who really understood  how to work with him. Monroe began working with the program to help get more kids like her son out on the water. Despite being able to share sailing with Mark, Monroe realized he wasn’t getting that socialization that she wanted for him. How could she make that happen? 

After two months of learning to sail 420s for five hours each day, Monroe earned her Level One instructor credentials and began working to create her own nonprofit organization. Freedom Sailing’s first summer camp took place in 2013 with rented boats and Monroe and her son teaching side by side. It wasn’t until after that first summer that she was able to buy boats for the camp, starting with a Hobie Wave that she purchased with the money awarded from a US Sailing grant. In the past ten years, Monroe has advanced the program to be as inclusive as possible. There are young people with autism throughout the organization – on the board, teaching, volunteering, working on Level One instructor certifications, and continuing to sail socially and competitively. Mark, now 23, still works alongside Monroe, teaching kids how to sail and helping them to understand that they can do anything. 

When Monroe and Mark first started out, they tried sailing the “normal” way. Quickly realizing it didn’t work for them, they had to figure out a new way to teach and learn. Monroe described how they adapted their teaching style to better fit campers’ experiences: 

“We give our students all the knowledge, but I don’t teach the regular way because my kids are more sensory driven, so we use their senses to help them learn. They learn all the basic things, but they usually use their senses more than anything else. All that stuff plays a big part in how we teach them because those things play a big part in their lives. Most students are either high or low sensory on something, so we work around that. With neurotypical sailors, you can teach them off the whiteboard while they’re sitting down. My students have to immediately be moving; we’re at the boat, touching it, getting on it. We just kind of go backwards compared to what US Sailing has in its curriculum.” 

Monroe’s method adapted the program for students who like to be hands-on and don’t like to sit still for long periods of time. Freedom Sailing Camp also has a volunteer behavior specialist on its staff who guides Monroe and other teachers if they need additional support to address student needs. Overall, everything Monroe and her staff do is geared toward creating success for each and every student. 

A Spectrum of Experiences 

Monroe’s guiding principle is to “see the individual, not the diagnosis.” At Freedom Sailing Camp, Instructors and staff treat their students as they would treat anyone without autism. Monroe looks to Mark as an example of what’s possible for her students. “I was told Mark would never speak at three years old, and Mark speaks volumes now,” Monroe said. “I think that’s the idea here: We need to see these kids getting out there and doing more than what people say they are.”  

Today, Mark works both at Freedom Sailing Camp and at the family’s construction business; he bought his own camera and loves taking photos, especially for the Camp’s website; he speaks to large groups, including a presentation at the 2023 US Sailing Leadership Forum; and he even learned to write grants for the program. Mark’s successes serve as examples for the kids at Freedom Sailing Camp and their parents, showing that his autism does not define him. 

To put this principle into action, Monroe welcomes every student that comes her way, many of whom have been rejected from other programs because of their autism diagnosis. Freedom Sailing Camp doesn’t ask for any diagnosis information, only the student’s age, which helps them understand what types of skills they may be working on. With the primary goal of her students’ success, Monroe doesn’t allow anyone to say that they can’t do something. She used to get frustrated when students would repeatedly say they ‘can’t,’ something that they had internalized from hearing it so many times. She notes that teaching her students comes down to having patience, knowing how to work with kids, and knowing that they can do it with time. 

Monroe “sees the individual” in every aspect of Freedom Sailing Camp. She discussed another instructor, Ian, who has autism spectrum disorder and is also an accomplished sailor, having competed at the 2022 Youth Worlds in The Hauge, The Netherlands. She described Ian as a really incredible person as well as someone who has some challenges with scheduling. Monroe makes sure to double check with Ian and remind him about his schedule as an added layer of support. This simple step promotes inclusion and helps Ian to be able to do the impactful work he does at Freedom Sailing Camp and continue to be a role model for younger sailors. Monroe detailed the value of having leaders who also are members of the autistic community and what that brings to the organization. When Mark started teaching, Monroe found the value of having a leader who the students knew was just like them.  

Even without knowing exactly what Mark’s specific challenges were, the students knew that if he could sail, so could they, and that made a big difference in their excitement. She noted that when students and parents see autistic people as representatives of their community participating in all areas of Freedom Sailing Camp, it expands what they believe to be possible and reassures them that they can be successful.  

To individuals with autism, Monroe shared that it is so important to not let people put stigmas, stereotypes, and stipulations on you about your capabilities. For example, Monroe reflected on the stereotype that kids with autism have behavioral problems and are disruptive or difficult to deal with.  

“There are days when I have 35 of these kids on my beach and not one of them gives me a problem,” Monroe notes. “So, it’s just not a true fact.”  

Outcomes of Living as More Than Your Diagnosis 

Freedom Sailing Camp’s approach to inclusion creates outcomes that extend beyond learning how to sail. Monroe’s original intent for Mark when she found sailing was about being outside and having opportunities to socialize, which is still evident more than 10 years later. The students at Freedom Sailing Camp get to socialize with autistic and neurotypical kids and adults alike. Their experiences provide them with social skills like flexibility, patience, and self-esteem as well as job skills and increased motor skills. They learn flexibility by having to adjust their sailing plans according to the weather, learning that life will not look the same every day and plans may change. With three or four students on a boat, they learn patience by taking turns and practice teamwork by helping others with skills that they may feel more confident in. Some students have more challenges than others with fine motor skills, so they may get extra help with holding on to the ropes, pulling the tiller extension, and tying knots. Lastly, the increased self-esteem that students gain from accomplishing a difficult task like learning to sail shows them that it is possible to do hard things and helps them feel more confident when socializing.  

These skills will help the students to be successful in their community, which is another aspect of the program. Freedom Sailing Camp is involved in the Safety Harbor Christmas parade each year, giving the students a chance to be visible members of the community, talk to people, and get used to participating in large events. Increased self-esteem  helps these young people to feel more independent, and when parents see their kids growing and accomplishing new things, they can additionally learn to give them more independence and autonomy. Monroe reflected that sailing is so great because her students can go just about anywhere with it; they can share it with their family, race, do it as a leisure activity, or even make it a career.  

Knowledge Sharing 

Monroe pointed out that despite her longtime relationship with US Sailing, the organization still has a gap in its conceptualization of adaptive sailing and the resources available for creating inclusive spaces for folks with all types of neurodivergence. She hopes to be able to contribute to future updates of the Adaptive Sailing Resource Manual and the Level One Instructor resources to include information on working with individuals on the autism spectrum. With more resources, hopefully more camps can create opportunities for autistic kids to participate and learn to sail. Learning inclusive teaching strategies can benefit all sailing students. Autism spectrum disorder may be as prevalent as 1 in 36 children, according to new CDC reports, which reinforces the importance of being equipped to support young people in their unique experiences. 

Monroe described her experience at the recent Sailing Leadership Forum, saying that all kinds of instructors and directors came up to her to ask how she teaches her kids. Though Monroe was sick on the day of the presentation, Mark and Ian joined Charlie Arms and Scott Herman to present “Sailing Beyond the Diagnosis, Navigating Neurodiversity to Find Success.”  Mark and Ian spoke about what sailing had done for them, and their presentation shared many valuable lessons that answered the questions people were asking. 

To neurotypical people or anyone wanting to create equitable, inclusive spaces, Monroe advised that the diagnosis is not more important than the individual, and patience is essential. 

“You need to have patience,” she said. “If you’re not willing to put your heart out there and be patient with these kids, you’re not going to see them grow. If you make them feel like they can’t grow, then they’re not going to grow. And that’s one reason why my program has worked so well, is my parents are able to see their kids grow and learn and be a part of something that is way, way past their diagnosis.” 

Sailing is for everyone, whether they have a diagnosis or not. If you meet them as sailors and put their humanity first, anyone can sail.