how to teach Autistic children to swim

how to teach autistic children to swim
Last week I wrote a post about the importance of teaching our children with Autism to swim. That post, 4 Reasons Why You Should Teach Your Autistic Child to Swim, has been shared over 3,000 times! If you haven’t yet, be sure to check it out. The number one reason is to prevent drownings, go find out why.

In that post I promised that today I would share some ideas on how to teach an Autistic child to swim. So here we go.

Our son Jeremiah (nonverbal and doesn’t understand directions unless it’s part of his every day life) is learning to swim. He’s almost five, and I wish he could take off across the pool by himself, but he isn’t. We expose Jeremiah to water as much as we can. Whenever we stay at hotels, we make sure they have a pool to meet his sensory needs, we put him in swim lessons the last couple years, we visit pools in town when we can, and we’ve been swimming in the lake a couple times.

It’s really important for children with Autism to be exposed to water.

This is to help them become comfortable in it and don’t freak out when they fall in. Because they’re so interested in water, they’re much more likely to drown than the average child, and the first step is getting them familiar with water.

You might want to do this without a life jacket at first. It depends on how old your child is, their activity level, and your ability to be constantly holding them up in the water. If you do use a life jacket, be sure to go without it sometimes (making sure you’re always within reach, preferably holding them up, until they can float or tread water on their own).

When Jeremiah was younger we didn’t use a life vest, but as he got older and wanted to explore more, we put a life vest on him. We’ve now worked into him having it off more than on. Many swim teachers would disagree with the use of a life vest, as this can teach the child to rely on the vest, and the child does not  have a healthy fear of the water. They can come to depend on the flotation and not realize they can go under and not bounce back up. We found that alternating, going with and without the life vest, worked well for Jeremiah.

I talked a little about this in the post on why you should teach your Autistic child to swim, but we never taught Jeremiah how to close his mouth and hold his breath when he went under the water.

Every child with Autism is different, they all have differing abilities.

With Jeremiah, he doesn’t understand directions that aren’t a part of his every day life, and even those were difficult for many years (i.e. only in the past few months has he understood how to hand us something when we request it – anything besides his PECS pictures has been difficult for him). So, we weren’t able to explain, “Hold your breath,” or “Close your mouth,” or “Don’t breathe in your nose.” How do you teach a child not to suck in a nose-full of chlorinated water? Surprisingly, Jeremiah’s done much better at learning to keep his mouth closed, and not choke when going under, than many other “typical” children. He learned VERY quickly what not to do. He’s only coughed up water a couple times.

This is the same with kicking his legs and moving his arms in the pool, we didn’t move Jeremiah’s legs, but it’s the first swimming movement he caught onto, second was the movement of his arms. We can now place our hand under his tummy and he will “swim”. Not enough to keep himself afloat, but he’s getting there.
Drowning is the leading cause of death in Autism

You may be wondering if we’ve had Jeremiah in swim lessons, we did, he’s been through two classes. However, I don’t really feel they were extremely beneficial. I believe if we had a better instructor (as the one in the video below), Jeremiah may have progressed more, but in the end, he seems to do most things at his speed anyway. I do feel the swim teacher was helpful in that it was someone he didn’t know, touching him and talking to him twice a week. It’s important for children with Autism to be around others and in new environments, working with their comfort level in mind.

The concept of “First/Then” works really well when helping a child learnt swim. (Okay, it works well in all areas of the Autism life.) First/Then is done best when taught in the home environment before introducing it in a new and unfamiliar one.

In Jeremiah’s classroom and at home, we use First/Then to let Jeremiah know what’s going to happen in his world, to prepare him. It’s also used if he doesn’t like a particular activity that he has to do. So, if your child doesn’t like to go to the bathroom, you can say, “First we’ll go to the bathroom, then we’ll jump on the trampoline.” You can start with shorter sentences, depending on how much your child understands. When swimming, you can ascertain what your child’s favorite activity is, whether it’s jumping in the pool, splashing, or going under the water, and then use the First/Then concept; “First we’ll kick our legs, then we’ll jump off the side of the pool.” (You can see the use of this in the video below.)

In this video, the swim instructor, Tara, uses some really great techniques with Daniel: PECS (the pictures on the boards are a Picture
Exchange Communication System – also best if learned in the school and home environment first), and First/Then as a reward.

A few things I love about this video are:

  • Daniel is nonverbal like my son and so many of your children.
  • The progress Daniel has made since the first lesson is inspiring.
  • Tara uses PECS, which Daniel is familiar with, to help him understand what’s coming next, which is paramount to the Autism brain.
  • Tara incorporates regular learning in her lessons (talking about the color of rings).
  • Tara’s consistent, each class is ended with the same three elements.
  • And this part is cool! – She says that once they teach a child to blow their nose UNDER the water, the child can then BLOW their nose when they’re out of the water. 🙂
  • Tara teaches Daniel how to jump into the pool. In the video, Tara explains why this is so important.

Really makes me wish we lived in Maryland!

I hope this gives you some ideas on how you can teach your Autistic child to swim. Some of you can’t afford lessons, and I believe you can try this on your own if that’s the case. And, if you don’t have access to exceptional swim instructors these are some ideas you can take to your child’s teacher if they are in swim school.

Have you taught your child to swim? Do you have any tips to share with us? have you struggled with teaching your child to swim? What were they? I love comments, so please share!

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