The bright white lifeguard tower at Torrance Beach contrasts starkly with the marine-blue expanse of the coast.
But that’s changing this week.
Volunteers, along with ocean lifeguard and designer Scott Snyder, have spent the last few days hand-painting brightly colored hearts on the structure, to spread an important message: That of autism awareness — and that beaches are for everyone.
The new autism awareness tower was already gaining attention as intended.
Walkers and bikers along the beach path near Paseo de la Playa were already stopping to snap photos of the tower, which will become a permanent art installation.
The tower is set to be completed later this week, just in time for April’s Autism Awareness and Acceptance month. World Autism Awareness Day is Sunday, April 2.
The working tower, adorned with hearts, infinity symbols and messages of kindness and caring, will also bear the words, “Care needs no words.” The concept for the autism awareness tower was inspired by Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Sirens of Silence — the brainchild of Karen Zarsadiaz-Ige, LACFD’s communications manager.
Sirens of Silence is a continuing education course all LA County paramedics and fire personnel are required to take, Zarsadiaz-Ige said.
The training teaches first responders what signs to look for when approaching an individual who has autism spectrum disorder and how to respond with care and compassion. It also recommends alternative programming for schools to the typical second-grade trip to the fire department, where students are wowed by the flashing lights and sirens of the hook-and-ladder trucks.
For those on the spectrum, sirens might best be left silent.
Zarsadiaz-Ige started the program in earnest when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Her son Liam being diagnosed on the spectrum in 2017, when was just 2 years old, was her impetus, she said.
“I know what he’s saying,” Zarsadiaz-Ige said. “But I feel like others wouldn’t.”
The concerned Mom started looking for resources on how to communicate with and help others relate to Liam. There weren’t any available that she didn’t have to pay for, she said.
So Zarsadiaz-Ig combined her dedication to her child with her avocation — and Sirens of Silence was born. The program consists of educational and awareness components. It’s the latter part, she said, that is just now taking off –and in a big way.
“As a parent, we’re trying to get our kids to adapt to the way of the world around them,” she said, referring to the struggles parents who have children with ASD face.
But she soon realized that teaching the kids, making them adapt, maybe wasn’t the best strategy.
“That is backwards,” she said. “Instead, we have to teach the world to adapt to these kids. Everyone occupies space. We should be teaching everyone else how to adapt to him and how to include him (and others on the spectrum).”
The lifeguard tower is intended to spread that massage, Zarsadiaz-Ige said, and is the best billboard she could hope for.
The tower, dedicated and ushered into permanence by Fourth District LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn, isn’t the first to promote autism awareness in LA County. A temporary tower was painted similarly in 2021 in Marina del Rey, at Mother’s Beach. But it was painted over last year, Zarsadiaz-Ige said.
The Torrance Beach tower, she’s been assured, is here to stay. And with the help of paint donated from Behr “in perpetuity,” its hearts will stay vibrant for years, Zarsadiaz-Ige said.
Zarsadiaz-Ige credited Hahn’s office for helping establish the partnerships.
Hanh, in a Tuesday, March 28, email, emphasized the message of inclusivity the lifeguard tower represents. LA County cannot serve residents with a “one -size-fits-all” approach, she said.
“We are on a mission to make our beaches accessible to everyone,” Hanh said, pointing to the wheelchair-friendly mats, the flashing light tsunami warning system (also at Torrance Beach) for those who are deaf or hard of hearing and the Sirens of Silence program as examples.
The South Bay is also home to another beacon of inclusion: the Hermosa Beach Pride tower, also spearheaded by Hahn when that city was still under her jurisdiction.
On Tuesday, designer Snyder and volunteers worked hard at Torrance Beach ahead of Wednesday’s rains. Snyder works in the graphic design department for LACFD’s lifeguard division during the winter months.
Snyder, a Hermosa Beach resident who has been an ocean lifeguard since 2009, said he was proud to be such an integral part of the autism awareness tower. He and his girlfriend frequent the Torrance Beach location, he said, so it was extra special to have the tower there.
“To keep this in the community,” Snyder said, “it’s really an honor.”
Palos Verdes Peninsula resident Shaana Berman and her seventh-grade son, Jackson, helped out on Tuesday. Mom delicately outlined one of the bright red hearts while her son held a cup of paint for her.
Berman, a private consultant who works with individuals with behavioral and learning issues, said keying into autism awareness in such a big way was critically important. Especially during the post-COVID-19 era, after there was so much isolation in the ASD community and elsewhere, it’s important that first responders know how to react in “a way that doesn’t cause more trauma,” she said.
As she and Jackson continued their work, Priscilla Aoki Picard, a founding board member of nonprofit Autism Speaks, stopped by to check out the tower’s progress. She was pleased.
“I look at this as a safe place for all families and for children of all abilities,” Picard said.
The mother of a now-adult son who is on the spectrum said that when he was young, she had to watch every move he made while at the beach.
She said she hoped the bright, inviting hearts would beckon to a child with ASD. They would know it is a safe place to come, Picard said, and might run toward the tower if they are in danger.
Every lifeguard tower is a safe place, she said, but this one at Torrance Beach is “so identifiable.”
“This is going to be an icon of inclusion and safety,” Picard said.