As a parent of three kids 6 and under (one of them having autism), summer activities involving water have made me uncomfortable for years. Unless it was a splash pad or a pool with only a foot of water we pretty much just avoided it. Even in a few inches of water in the bathtub I would hover within arm’s reach and give constant reminders, “Don’t put your face by the water” or “No standing you could slip.” As we started to see how much our son with autism enjoyed the water we knew spending a summer avoiding pools and lakes was doing him a disservice. It was doing them all a disservice but with three of them and two of us we felt pretty limited. Compounding my fear of my autistic son drowning were the staggering statistics of how many in the autism community lose their lives to water. In 2012, the National Autism Association reported that accidental drowning accounted for 91% of the total U.S. deaths reported in children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder ages 14 and younger subsequent to wandering/elopement. With the many deaths in recent years due to drowning, I assume that percentage has only grown.
I knew we needed swim classes for all of the kids, but I also knew that finding someone to work with and be successful teaching a kiddo with autism would be difficult, if not impossible. We recently moved to the DC area and I heard about Sensory Swim, a program specifically for autistic and sensory challenged individuals. When I spoke on the phone with Andrew and Mary (Sensory Swim’s owners and founders) I asked about a million questions and tried to calm my nerves by understanding their methodology and safety measures. I found out they both had a background in special education and after seeing a demand and need for effective swim classes for our community had decided to apply their knowledge and skill sets to teach our kids how to swim.
We signed up and took the plunge. I watched as my typical son took typical swim lessons alongside our son with autism and was pleasantly surprised by how different Sensory Swim’s methods were from regular private instruction. They started in the deep end and let him get a feel for treading water. With only a few feet between the two of them they would propel him into the direction of the other so he could get the feel of moving forward without being able to touch the bottom. They didn’t try to explain to him how to hold his breath or how to kick his legs. They SHOWED him everything they expected him to do. And to keep him motivated and working each time they would lift him up high and spin him or make huge waves to make him laugh. He would get positive reinforcement every time he imitated what they showed him.
I watched my older son and realized none of the methods the typical swim school was using with him would have worked for our autistic kiddo. He would not have understood the demands put on him and he would have not had enough motivation or silliness to stay engaged. Seeing how hands on Sensory Swim was and how well he responded, a lot of my fear dissipated. And although I know we have a ways to go, seeing him put his head under water without anxiety and watching him know how to hold his breath now are BIG first steps. Watching him get about six feet now doggy paddling on his own, I am hopeful that the goal of him swimming and staying safe if he were to get in the water on his own is within reach.
And as I have watched these successes and milestones and just how happy he is in the water, part of me is aching. We need more. We need access. We need every autistic child and adult in this country to have the chance to learn how to swim.
We as a community are seriously falling behind at keeping our kids safe from wandering deaths. The dangers of elopement will always be there for many of our families, but getting past our own water anxiety as parents and making a commitment to teach all of our kids to swim can eliminate one risk that is a danger for our families.