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 a parent of a child with autism, as 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, Jennifer Deis — swim instructor and area manager of Goldfish Swim School in Anderson and West Chester — offers some tips for teaching kids 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?  

The earlier a child is introduced to water, the better. Outside of swim lessons, water acclimation can begin at home in the tub. Blowing bubbles, floating on their back and wearing goggles can all help introduce a child to water. Conditioning is another skill that can be worked on at home. Before a child is ready to go under the water, we must first teach them to properly hold their breath. You can do this by slowly pouring water over the child’s shoulders, neck, head and eventually the face. Use the verbal cue “NAME, ready, go!” then pour the cup of water. Remember to visually demonstrate breath holding with a closed mouth and big, puffy cheeks so your child will imitate you. Always celebrate after with cheers and claps for positive reinforcement. 

What types of lessons are best for children with autism? 

Perpetual, year-round swim lessons are recommended for all children.  

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

Staying consistent with lessons is a must. The best way to prevent water-related accidents is through regular swim lessons. Taking lessons is proven to strengthen social confidence and accelerate cognitive development.   

Starting swim lessons can seem very overwhelming for some kids. Crying is one of the most common behaviors we see when a child attends their first lesson. Crying will typically stop after they have built trust and confidence with the instructor. As a parent, the best things you can do are to continue with lessons as normal, do not allow your anxiety to show and offer lots of positive praise when behavior is improved.  

Communication with your instructor is key, as well. They should be able to adapt the lesson so your child feels confident and comfortable while learning to swim. Some of those tools include a visual curriculum book, modified end goals and social stories. 

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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