Swimming Lessons For Children with Autism

What is Autism? How Does it Affect Children?

Autism is a ‘spectrum’ condition and affects different people in different ways. Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) incorporates a group of neurodevelopmental disorders causing impaired communication skills and social skills and behavioural challenges. Communication and interacting with the world is a big challenge for people with autism.

Until recently, experts talked about different types of autism, such as autistic disorder or Asperger’s syndrome. These days “autism spectrum disorders” or ASD covers all types of autism.

It’s very difficult to generalise how an autistic person will develop over time, but, generally people with autism, need more support when it comes to education learning and looking after their health.

Sport And Children With Autism

A happy swim teacher is teaching a child to swimThere are five sports in particular that are often identified as being really beneficial for children with autism. They are swimming, cycling, horse riding, track and field and gymnastics.


These 5 individual sports enable children to develop endurance and improve their physical co-ordination without challenging their social skills.

Team sports require a high degree of verbal and non-verbal communication and so autistic children find them difficult to participate.

More concerning however is a  2017 study by Columbia University, highlighted the risks not teaching children with autism to swim. 

Dr Li, the lead scientist of this study said, “Our analysis reveals that children with autism are 160 times more likely to die from drowning as the general paediatric population. Given the exceptionally heightened risk of drowning for children with autism, swimming classes should be the intervention of top priority.” 

Swimming lessons not only can help to reduce the risk of accidental drowning, but they can also bring more joy, confidence, and coordination into the lives of autistic children.

High quality movements in water  and swimming lessons can improve learning in other areas, strengthen muscles, and reduce anxiety in ASD children.

Teaching Children with Autism to Swim

2019 'Swimming with Autism' conference in Poland

The first European Conference for ‘Swimming with Autism’ was held in SzczecinPoland in August this year and I went along to represent Blue Wave Swim School .

My aim was to learn more from the experts about the best practice for teaching swimming to ASD children.

Making swimming lessons for children on the autism spectrum safe and enjoyable is a skill that must be learnt.

With the better rates of diagnosis of where children may be on the autistic spectrum, at Blue Wave Swim School we have been receiving increasing numbers of enquiries about swim lessons for ASD children.

Over the last 10 years, we’ve taught many ASD children to swim, with several of them really excelled at swimming.

This conference was organised by Szczecin-based Safer3 swim school and the aim of this conference was to share knowledge and learn from the international experts from the special needs education and swimming sector.

A team of first-class speakers from the U.S and Poland in 3 days explained how teachers and coaches can meet the needs of children with autism in swim lessons. 

I learnt so much about the special swimming programmes and their positive impact on ASD children’s lives.

Autism and Swimming: The Experts

Tammy Anderson-Lee & Cathy Ball (U.S.A)

They are authors of an interesting book titled ‘Swimming with Autism’ are renowned experts in this field.

Tammy is the owner of Aqua Pros Swim School and Cathy is a Behaviour Therapist. Aqua Pro Swim School has been offering “Persons with Autism Learning to Swim” program since 2001 and has taught thousands of students with autism to swim.

With a big team of teachers, Tammy’s swim school teaches 1,500 children every week in San Diego, California. Teaching children with autism started 20 years ago at Aqua Pros Swim School when a mother with two ASD children approached Tammy to teach her boys to swim. Perceived to have ‘bad behaviour’ at other swim schools, the mother had difficulty finding  swimming lessons for her sons.

Cathy has been working with families, schools and educational authorities for decades. Cathy provides her expertise on how to support children with Autism and special needs for behaviour modifications. She advices on how to help children to become more independent individuals.

Kinga Michalkiewicz (Poland)

Owner of Pyramid Approach to Learning: Special Schools for teaching children with Autism

Tamara Olszewska Watracz (Poland)

Sports Psychologist

Marjan Moosavi from Blue Wave Swim School is teaching a child with autism to swim

Top Tips for Teaching ASD Children to Swim:

Be adaptable and flexible. 

ASD is clearly not a one size fits all diagnosis and hence, there is no one model for teaching swimming.

Introduce children with ASD to water early.

Although this applies to all children, early swimming lessons benefits autistic children even more and here’s why:

    1. Around two to three years of age, it’s when children can get the diagnoses for autism.
    2. One of the challenges that ASD children have is the hyper-sensitivity of sensory system .
    3. When babies, rather than toddlers, are introduced to the water in a controlled environment, they get used to the sensation of being immersed in water and the sensation on their skin earlier.
    4. They also will pick up swimming skills earlier.
    5. Older autistic children may tell teachers that feeling of being in water as ‘hurtful’. The older ASD children are, the more likely hyper-sensitivity they are to water
    6. So, it’s better dealt with their hyper-sensitivity when they are little

Be extra patient and don’t rush through the lessons

Children with autism process information with a delay. So, any verbal instruction from swim teachers, is unlikely to result into action. Even young children without autism don’t always listen to swim teachers teachers. Children with even mild autism, could seem distracted in swim lessons. Sometimes they look as if they simply ignoring instructions. This can be frustrating for teachers and parents.

      1. Effective teaching needs calmness
      2. Children with autism needs more time to put instructions into action.
      3. Avoid hurrying a child
      4. Don’t give too many instructions

Keep instructions short and be extra clear 

The advice from experts such as Cathy Bell is to keep instructions short and sweet and wait. Too many instructions creates confusion and chaos in the minds of autistic children. This can make swim lessons a source of distress for everybody.

Repeat (and then repeat)

Children with autism thrive in a repetitive environment. They like order and predictability. Use written instructions, pictures or even tablets/ipads to layout the lesson plan and activities. Ability to count and ‘tick off’ the exercises with simple tools such as pegs does wonder.

    1. Autistic children love organised and we-explained teaching. Therefore, the more organised a teacher is, the more engaging the lessons will be.

For more tips and advice both for parents and swim teachers, Tammy and Cathy’s book, ‘Swimming with Autism’ is highly recommended. You can see them here as they give their top tips.

Whether you are a parent or a swim teacher, you can also get plenty more tips and advice on this topic by listening to ‘Swimming with Autism’ podcasts . In this episode of ‘Swimming with Autism’, I had the pleasure to talk about what I learnt at the conference.

We offer private Swim lessons For children with autism.

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