swim lessons for kids with autism

Why Swim Lessons for Kids With Autism Are Crucial – Akron ABA Therapist Insight

Summer is just around the corner here in Northeast Ohio, and many parents are making plans for the summer. Kids will have greater access to swimming pools, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water as they enjoy summer fun. Learning to swim is an important life skill for all kids. But especially for kids on the autism spectrum, swim lessons are crucial. From an Akron ABA therapist perspective, the importance of this cannot be overstated.

Kids on the Autism Spectrum are at Much Higher Risk of Drowning

Research suggests that children with autism have a higher risk of drowning compared to their neurotypical peers. In fact, their drowning risk is a staggering 160 times higher. This is a deeply upsetting reality, but not one that we as parents, caregivers, therapists, and teachers can afford to ignore.

There are a few factors that contribute to this heightened risk:

  1. Wandering behavior. Children with autism may engage in wandering or elopement, where they wander away from a safe environment without understanding potential dangers. This behavior puts them at a higher risk of accidental drowning, particularly if they are drawn to bodies of water such as pools, lakes, or ponds.
  2. Sensory challenges. Children with autism may have sensory sensitivities or difficulties with sensory integration. These challenges can make it harder for them to understand and respond to sensory cues associated with water, such as depth perception, temperature, or waves, increasing the risk of accidents in aquatic environments.
  3. Impulsivity and lack of fear response. Some children with autism may exhibit impulsive behaviors or have difficulty understanding the consequences of their actions. They may lack a natural fear response, making it more challenging for them to recognize and avoid dangerous situations in or around water.
  4. Communication and social limitations. Children with autism may have difficulties with communication and social skills, which can impede their ability to seek help or express their distress in water-related emergencies. This communication barrier can delay or hinder timely intervention in case of accidents.

Given these factors, it is crucial to prioritize water safety education and swimming skills for children with autism to mitigate the risks associated with drowning.

(Not to mention, learning to swim has many added benefits for kids on the autism spectrum, such as development of sensory integration, gross motor skills, socialization/communication, stress relief/self-regulation, and overall physical wellness with the exercise.)

ABA Therapist Tips for Starting Swim Lessons With Kids on the Autism Spectrum

When helping children with autism learn how to swim, it’s important to create a supportive and structured environment that takes into account their individual needs.

Here are some of our Akron ABA therapist tips to assist in teaching children with autism how to swim:

  1. Find a qualified instructor. Look for swimming instructors who have experience working with children with special needs, including autism. They should have knowledge of autism and be able to adapt teaching methods to accommodate individual needs.
  2. Start with familiarization. Begin by introducing the child to the pool environment gradually. Let them explore the pool area, touch the water, and become comfortable with the sensory aspects of swimming, such as the temperature and texture of the water.
  3. Use visual supports. Visual aids, such as visual schedules, social stories, or picture cards, can be helpful in explaining the swimming routine and providing a visual understanding of what to expect during lessons. Visual supports can also aid in reinforcing rules and safety instructions.
  4. Maintain a predictable routine. Establish a consistent and predictable routine for swimming lessons. Children with autism often thrive in structured environments, so having a regular schedule and maintaining familiar rituals before and after lessons can help them feel more secure and comfortable.
  5. Break down skills into smaller steps. Break swimming skills into manageable and sequential steps. Teach one skill at a time, providing clear instructions and demonstrations. Gradually build upon each mastered skill to progress to more advanced techniques.
  6. Use visual demonstrations. Visual demonstrations of swimming techniques can be particularly effective for children with autism. Use videos, pictures, or real-time modeling to show them how to perform specific movements and strokes.
  7. Provide sensory accommodations. Take into consideration sensory sensitivities or sensory-seeking behaviors that the child may have. Adjust the environment if needed, such as using earplugs or providing sensory tools like goggles, swim caps, or flotation devices to help them feel more comfortable and secure in the water.
  8. Offer positive reinforcement. Use positive reinforcement, such as verbal praise, rewards, or preferred activities, to motivate and reinforce their efforts and progress. Celebrate their achievements and small milestones to boost their confidence and engagement.
  9. Individualize instruction. Recognize and respect each child’s unique learning style and preferences. Some children may benefit from more structure and explicit instructions, while others may respond better to a more flexible and creative approach. Adapt your teaching strategies to cater to their individual needs.
  10. Focus on water safety. Emphasize water safety skills throughout the swimming lessons. Teach them about pool rules, how to enter and exit the water safely, and what to do in emergency situations. Reinforce the importance of always swimming with supervision.

Remember that each child with autism is unique, and progress may vary. Patience, understanding, and a supportive approach are key when helping children with autism learn to swim. But teaching children on the autism spectrum to swim and providing water safety strategies, we can help keep them safer, happier, and healthier.

Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides ABA therapy to children in Brecksville-Broadview Heights, Cleveland, Akron, and surrounding communities. We also offer summer camp, day programs, education services, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email.

Additional Resources:

Individuals With Autism at Substantially Heightened Risk for Injury Death, With Drowning the Leading Cause, March 21, 2017, Columbia University Irvine Medical Center

More Blog Entries:

Stimming with Autism: FAQ With Our Cleveland ABA Therapists, July 10, 2022, Akron ABA Therapist Blog