Pool season has arrived, bringing with it swimsuits, sunscreen and, for parents of children with autism, added anxiety over keeping their kids safe around the water.
Accidental drowning is among the leading causes of death for individuals on the spectrum, in large part due to their tendency to wander from safe environments. According to the National Autism Association, between 2009 and 2011, drowning accounted for 91 percent of the total U.S. deaths reported in children with autism ages 14 and younger subsequent to elopement.
That’s why teaching children on the spectrum to be comfortable and confident around water is a key element in adapted swim lessons offered throughout the Indianapolis area. “The ultimate goal is to have them learn, if they fall in, how to get to the side or back float,” says Katie Gipson, who owns Stony Creek Swim Center’s Aqua Abilities, a specialized program for those with special needs. “Just like with any lessons, we’re teaching these kids to be water wise.”
Of course, not all children with autism react to water the same way. Some may show no fear at the pool, while for others, just the feel of water can cause sensory overload.
Jillian Guthrie, aquatics director at the Baxter YMCA on Indianapolis’ south side, says individualized instruction is key for children with special needs. It’s the cornerstone of the WAVES program, or Water Access for Very Exceptional Swimmers, the special needs-focused lessons piloted there. Guthrie says they have some children who run to the pool and others who start just by simply splashing water on their feet. “That’s why being one-on-one with an instructor is so important. The needs are just so different.”
Adapting teaching techniques
Engaging children with autism in the pool can also take some creativity on the instructor’s part. Teachers may give additional physical and verbal cues, use a picture board to help nonverbal swimmers better communicate or keep kids’ attention with wacky wigs and costumes.
The swim lessons may look more like playtime than serious work, but the goal is still the same – for children to be comfortable and safe around the water. “It’s important to think about how we teach,” says Carolyn Sprehe, who gives swim lessons with I Can We Can Pediatric Therapy at JCC Indianapolis. “You have to think about all the areas of child development – physical, cognitive and social skills. It’s just adapting to whatever the child needs.”
Sticking with it
Swim instructors stress that while progress may be slow, success in the water comes when families stick with lessons.
Gipson tells the story of a boy with autism who was terrified of the water and clung to her, lesson after lesson. Gradually, he began holding on less tightly and then graduated to grasping floating rings instead. Now he’s swimming independently. “It might take us two years, but when it happens, it is awesome,” Gipson exclaims. “In his mom’s mind, she thought it would never happen. But, look, it’s happening! He’s swimming next to me! Those are the moments that never get old.”
Learning how to swim also gives children with autism a new way to connect with siblings and peers, Sprehe says. She recommends parents start their children early in the process and stay consistent with lessons. “Especially for a child on the autism spectrum, the younger they start, it will help them feel more comfortable more quickly. The wonderful thing about swimming is it can be a lifetime exercise for them, keeping them active as they age.”
Parents can contact their local swim center, YMCA or parks department to inquire about adapted swim lessons. See our sidebar for a list of possible options.