Guide to Swimming Lessons for Children With Autism

What is Autism?

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. But now they are all now called “autism spectrum disorders”.

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)

Tammy and Cathy are the authors of ‘Swimming with Autism’ and are renowned experts in this field. Tammy is the owner of Aqua Pros Swim School and Cathy is a Behaviour Therapist and both are based in San Diego, California. Aqua Pro Swim School has been offering “Persons with Autism Learning to Swim” program since 2001 and has taught thousands of students with autism swimming.

Tammy has been teaching swimming for more than four decades and each week 1,500 children are taught at her swim school. Her involvement with children with autism started more two decades ago when a mother with two children with autism approached her to teach her boys how to swim as her sons were excluded from other swim schools due to perceived ‘bad behaviour’. Cathy has been working with families, schools and educational authorities for decades providing her expertise on how to support children with Autism and special needs for behaviour modifications and becoming more independent.

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 (this applies to children with or without autism of course). Autism is often diagnosed when children are around two to three years old and one of the challenges with ASD children is their sensory hyper-sensitivity. 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 and will pick up swimming skills earlier. Older children with autism may describe the feeling of being in the water as ‘it hurts’. The older they are, this hyper-sensitivity to water may turn into a big barrier when learning to swim and it’s better dealt with at an earlier age.
  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, or any teacher, is unlikely to land as quickly as it might for a child without autism. Swim teachers who have experience of teaching children with autism say that teaching children, even with very mild autism, is challenging (and also rewarding) because it might look like the child is not listening or is will fully ignoring the instruction which can cause frustration both for teachers and children. Effective teaching needs calmness. So, swim teachers should give as much time as is needed to children with autism to enable them to put the instruction to action.
  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 much direction creates confusion and chaos in the minds of children with autism which can make learning to swim distressing.
  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. An organised and well-explained teaching system gives children with autism peace of mind and, in return, teachers are more likely to get their cooperation and engagement.

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.

If your child has autism or you suspect they may have autism and you’d like to explore the possibility of swim lessons, please do get in touch with us.


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