Making a Splash on the Spectrum

If you have a young child, you understand the importance of water safety and learning to swim. The moment a child can get out of the water on their own is the moment a parent can begin to take a deep breath and relax. Before then, being at a pool or lake can definitely be cause for anxiety. This can be especially true for parents of a child with autism, as water can be fascinating for children on the spectrum. Sadly, drowning is among the leading causes of death for individuals on the autism spectrum, according to the National Autism Association.

Learning to swim is necessary from a safety standpoint, but it’s important for other reasons, as well. The Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation website states that “swimming can help an autistic child improve their speech, coordination, social skills, self-esteem and cognitive processing.”

If you want to teach your child to swim but are unsure of what steps to take, Andrew Joseph — former college swimmer and area manager for Goldfish Swim Schools of Indianapolis — offers some tips for teaching children with autism how to swim.

When should parents of children with autism introduce their children to the water? What is the best way to do this?

When it comes to water safety, the most important thing we recommend is that parents exercise caution and plan to have a designated water watcher when in, around or near water. Swim lessons are not a substitute for parental vigilance and awareness. With that said, swim lessons are a fantastic way to introduce children to water, starting as young as 4 months old. We find the younger they are, the easier it is when teaching ALL children to swim.

What types of lessons are best for children with autism?

It really depends on the child. We find that group lessons, when possible, are a great way to teach children to swim. Group lessons offer other benefits, as kids learn to interact and see other kids get outside their comfort zones. One-on-one lessons are great, as well. They may not have the same interaction with their peers, but they can develop bonds with the instructors.

What tips do you have for parents who are teaching their child with autism how to swim?

First, it is key to take lesson from a respected source. They should have experience teaching children with autism, and know what to focus on. Prioritizing skills can be different than typical group classes. I think focusing on the safety aspects are my number-one concern after choosing a reliable teacher I am comfortable with. Self-rescue is key: back floats, swimming back to where a fall occurs and understanding that they can only swim with their parents are all good things to focus on.

On a personal level, I have seen great success with not only teaching children to swim, but major cognitive skills, as well. So many experiences and sensations happen when in the water (tactile, auditory, balance, proprioception) that I am always surprised at the amount of progress made with not just swimming, but life skills too, such as overcoming obstacles and fears, self-reliance, getting outside comfort levels and seeing success.

The benefits of learning to swim are lifelong. If your child is afraid of the water, it may be hard at first, but with perseverance and regular exposure, he or she will learn the skills necessary to swim independently. And what may begin as frightening, could become something they look forward to and enjoy for a lifetime. 

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