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Why Learning To Swim Is Vital For Children With Autism

Summer Is Here

The weather is getting warmer, and many people in the United States will be heading to the beach or taking a dip in the pool. For many parents that have a child with autism, going swimming isn’t at the top of their priority list. That being said, it’s often the places we might not immediately expect that could still pose a danger to children with ASD who cannot swim.

Research from Joseph Guan and Guohua Li indicates that “children with ASD are at a substantially heightened risk of unintentional injury, particularly drowning.”

In another article by Guan and Li, the two found that “fatal drowning in children with ASD typically occurs in water bodies near the victims’ homes precipitated by wandering.”

It’s important to note that according to the CDC, the prevalence of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder has recently grown to 1 in 36. With more children with autism being diagnosed, it is even more important for parents everywhere to understand the importance of teaching a child with autism how to swim if they are able.

Is It Possible for Children With ASD to Learn How to Swim?

Many children with autism can learn how to swim. Each child with autism has different abilities, skillsets, and ways of learning. Because learning to swim is a multi-step process, it needs to be taught in a personalized way that is specific to each child’s needs.

What’s Swimming Like for Children With Autism

Learning to swim may look a little different for each child. Some swimmers will want to dive right in, while other swimmers will be more cautious.

Flexibility is the best approach for a swim instructor, as each swimmer will have different cognitive, behavioral, and sensory processing responses.

It’s also helpful to incorporate play when possible. Swim instructors might join a child with autism when they’re splashing. The instructor could then say, “copy me,” and turn it into a lesson, recreating arm movements that will be used when swimming. Or including swimming toys like pool noodles, floating balls, or for more courageous, strong swimmers’ toys to dive after at the bottom of the pool.

Building rapport between the swimmer and the swim instructor. This is like the way an ABA therapist gets to know their client before jumping into therapy. Engaging in play can help establish trust and a great working relationship between the swimmer and swim instructor.

The Benefits of Learning How to Swim

Learning to swim not only helps children with autism live safely but can also help them with coordination and participating in a sport with a singular focus. Swimming may also give children with autism a chance to socialize with other swimmers, practice social skills, and learn about teamwork if they join a swim team.

Learning how to swim will also give children with autism an opportunity to feel new sensations. These new experiences may become overwhelming, so to help get used to these new feelings, children with autism may use sensory-friendly swimming tools that could include:

  • Floaties or a lifejacket

  • Earplugs

  • A swimming cap

  • Swim goggles

  • Nose clips

  • A wet suit

  • Flippers

  • And more!

Let them get comfortable with the water and try different swimming tools. Each child has a unique sensory experience and may prefer some items over the others if at all!

Practice Makes Perfect!

Once a child with autism starts to get the basics down, they may be looking for more opportunities to get back in the water. The beach may be overstimulating, but some recreational pools offer sensory-friendly swimming times. Things that may cause overstimulation, like changes to temperature or fluorescent lights in indoor pools, are adjusted and kept constant so that children with autism can focus on the senses they’ll be experiencing while in the water.

For children ready for an adventure, there are also theme parks and water parks that include autism-friendly swim times!


How to Get Started

Learning to swim is a challenging feat. Luckily, there are programs and organizations throughout the country that specialize in teaching children with autism how to swim. These programs offer personalized care with highly trained swim instructors who are trained to care for children with ASD.

Sources Cited

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Guan, J. and Guohua, L. Characteristics of Unintentional Drowning Deaths in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Guan, J. and Guohua, L. Injury Mortality in Individuals With Autism.


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