Swimming is a potentially life-saving skill that every child needs, but given the nature of the pool environment, lessons are not always easy for kids who are on the spectrum or affected by physical or mental disabilities and conditions like epilepsy. The benefits of swimming lessons to a child’s physical and cognitive development are well documented and swimming lessons should be inclusive for all regardless on the child’s disability.

It’s something that is certainly worth persisting with because drowning is still the number one cause of accidental death for children under five and drowning stats are significantly higher overall for children since the pandemic, when lessons were forced to stop as pools were directed to close.

The heightened water risk for ASD kids

Some children on the Autism Spectrum are particularly attracted to water environments and have little inherent sense of danger or threats. There is often a tendency to wander and to go in search of a retreat away from a stimulating environment and water can offer a calm and quiet allure, including the effects of the pressure of water on the body often leading to child with Autism preferring to be fully submerged. The latest figures available from Royal Life Saving Australia show that ADS has been a factor in drowning in Australia and that children 0-9 account for 70% of those drownings. It is critical that ASD children are exposed to safe water practices in swimming lessons from an early age and never swim alone.

A how-to guide for introducing a child to swimming lessons

If you’re looking at starting your child in lessons for the first time or returning to the pool, it can be understandably daunting for both child and parent. Challenges for children can include:

  • Sensory issues including movement of the water, noise, the feel of the platform under their feet.
  • Not wanting to be touched/supported by the teacher.
  • Concentration issues.
  • Communication difficulties

When introducing a child with disabilities or challenges to swimming lessons, these are the five tips that are effective in helping all involved feel as comfortable and calm as possible:

  1. Find a swim school that offers a free trial lesson. No child is the same and trial and error to work out the best approach for each child is required.
  2. Try to find a swim school that has small class numbers. Not only does this create a less-stimulating environment, but it also allows the teacher to closely supervise and observe children, which is essential for kids with disabilities or challenges.
  3. Visit the pool in the days leading up to the first lesson and even meet the teacher ahead of time.
  4. Talk to your child about what is going to happen in the lesson. The teacher can provide some detailed information about this so nothing is a surprise on the day.
  5. Keep an open line of communication with the teacher. There are lots of different things swim teachers can tweak that can make a big difference. Sometimes it’s necessary to move the child to a smaller class or introduce things like playing with a toy while waiting for their turn or being allowed to go under water on the platform while waiting for their turn to block out the noise. Techniques used are very dependent on the individual child so as long as there is lots of communication and you have an observant swim teacher, the right approach for each individual can be found depending on what their individual preferences and triggers are. Many tools are available to assist swimming teachers to support children with disabilities to learn to swim including visual aids and the use of AUSLAN sign language related to swimming actions. These tools along with a swag of understanding of behaviours and how to manage these in a positive way will lead to a successful swimming lesson. It is important to work with the right teacher to get the best outcome for each student.

In some instances, it may help to build familiarity if the child watches a few lessons without participating and in other situations the teacher may recommend a few one-on-one lessons to settle the child into the routine of the class and understand the basic safety rules within the lesson (listening, staying above the water, staying on the platform etc). For other children, one-on-one lessons may be required for a longer period or a support person may need to be engaged to accompany a child in group lessons.

The benefits of swimming lessons are many and include improved independence, building physical and emotional development, improvement in physical fitness and, of course, better water safety knowledge. If, however, your child continues to be very distressed in a swimming lessons environment, take a short break for a few weeks and try again.

Sharyn Loller is a JUMP! Swim School owner and a qualified swim instructor of more than 30 years. She has previously won an Inclusive Swimming Award from the Australian Swim Schools Association for her work with autistic children, in particular. JUMP! Swim Schools offer boutique facilities where children can learn to swim in a calm environment that is designed for optimal learning. For more information head to: www.jumpswimschools.com.au.

*Featured in Source Kids magazine Summer 2022