Swimming Lessons For Children with Autism

Autism and Its Effects on Children

Autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) incorporates a group of neurodevelopmental disorders causing impaired communication skills and social skills and behavioural challenges. ASD affects how people communicate and interact with the world. Until recently, experts talked about different types of autism, such as autistic disorder or Asperger’s syndrome. These days  “autism spectrum disorders” covers all types of autism.

Since autism is a ‘spectrum’ condition, it affects different people in different ways and it’s very difficult to generalise about how an autistic person will develop over time. Nonetheless, people with autism, of every age, generally need more support when it comes to education 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: swimming, cycling, horse riding, track and field and gymnastics. These sports enable children to develop endurance and better their physical co-ordination without challenging their social skills, whereas team sports require a high degree of verbal and non-verbal communication which children with autism might not enjoy or may find difficult.

More concerning however is a  2017 study by Columbia University, published in the American Journal of Public Health, which 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, which are part of swimming lessons, can also improve learning in other areas, strengthen muscles, as well as reduce anxiety.

Teaching Children with Autism to Swim

2019 'Swimming with Autism' conference in PolandThe 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 and to learn more from the experts about best practice and how to make swimming lessons for children on the autism spectrum as safe and enjoyable for them as possible. With better rates of diagnosis of where children may be on the autistic spectrum in recent years, at Blue Wave Swim School we have been receiving increasing numbers of enquiries about lessons for children with autism.

Over the last 10 years, we’ve taught many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) how to swim with several of them excelled really well 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 experts in special needs education and swimming from Poland and the U.S.A.

A team of first-class speakers addressed how teachers and coaches can meet the needs of children with autism during swim lessons. They spoke about the programmes which are already in operation and having a positive impact.

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:

  1. Be adaptable and flexible. ASD is clearly not a one size fits all diagnosis and hence, there is no one model for teaching swimming.
  2. Introduce children with ASD to water and start swim lessons early. Although this applies to all children, early swimming lessons benefits autistic children even more. Around two to three years of age, it’s when children can get the diagnoses for autism. One of the challenges that ASD children have is the hyper-sensitivity of sensory system . 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. They also will pick up swimming skills earlier. Older children with autism may tell teachers that feeling of being in the water as ‘hurtful’. The older ASD children, the more likely hyper-sensitivity to water may turn into a big issue in swimming. So, it’s better dealt with when they are babies or toddlers.
  3. Be extra patient and don’t rush the child. 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.  I have met many swim teachers who’ve said it is not easy to teach children with autism to swim. Even children with mild autism, in swim lessons they may seem distracted or not listening. Sometimes they look as if they simply ignoring instructions. This can be frustrating both for teachers and children.
    1. Effective teaching needs calmness
    2. Children with autism needs more time to put instructions into action.
    3. Avoid hurrying a child to go from one instruction to another.
  4. Keep instructions short and be extra clear.  The advice from experts such as Cathy Bell is to keep instructions short and sweet and then wait. Too many instructions creates confusion and chaos in the minds of autistic children. This can make learning to swim distressing for everybody.
  5. 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. Giving them the ability to count and ‘tick off’ the exercises with simple tools such as pegs does wonder. Autistic children love organised and we-explained teaching system. So, 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.

If you’d like to know more about our swim lessons, please get in touch .

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