Swimming and Autism
What do you think about when you hear the word “water?” For most people, the images of a relaxing beach, serene lake or flowing river are the first things that come to mind. However, for the parents of children with autism, the word is associated with much more concerning imagery.
This concern is derived from the statistics that show a trend in drowning amongst individuals on the spectrum. According to the National Autism Association (NAA), the mortality rate is twice as high for the ASD population than it is for the general population, which is attributed in large part to drowning. That is why SNACK has offered swim programming for individuals with autism since our inception.
NAA reports that between 2009 and 2011, accidental drowning accounted for approximately 91% of total U.S. deaths reported in children with autism ages 14 and younger subsequent to wandering/elopement.
The Interactive Autism Network disclosed that 32% of parents reported a “close call” with a possible drowning when their kids ran off from a safe environment. From 2009 to 2011, 68% of children were found in a nearby lake, pond, river, creek, or pool following elopement. The intense draw many children on the spectrum feel towards water is theorized to be due to the unique multisensory experience it offers them, or even the calmness of areas around water.
For the sake of drowning prevention alone, it is of the utmost importance that kids with autism learn how to swim. However, not only can an enjoyable activity such as swimming prevent drowning, but it also has a host of other psychological and physiological benefits for people on the spectrum.
This is because water reduces body weight and therefore helps loosen up tight muscles and alleviate stress. This feeling can be extremely soothing for children who find it hard to regulate their bodies. The pressure of water against their skin is comforting as kids play, and many parents report that their autistic children are more tolerable towards touch and cope with everyday stress better after swimming. In fact, the gentle, rhythmic movements of swimming are similar to self-stimulatory behavior, such as flapping hands, and can help distract people with autism as well and reduce this repetitive behavior.
LEARNING TO SWIM AT SNACK
Swimming has also been shown to improve coordination and cognitive processing. When children take swimming lessons, they work on concentration, attention span, impulse control, and their ability to follow directions. The energy required to swim can reduce hyperactivity and improve a child’s ability to focus on tasks after the fact. Swimming can even help children with ASD improve their speech because they practice oral articulation when blowing bubbles in the water and controlling their breathing.
Swimming can also provide people on the autism spectrum an outlet to improve their social skills and self-esteem. According to We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gym, when kids with ASD swim in groups or interact one-on-one with an instructor, they learn how to share toys and participate in cooperative and competitive play while having the choice to interact at a level that is comfortable for them. Having autistic children engage in these social situations can make them more at ease around other people, which can in turn build self-confidence and expand their interpersonal relationships.
Just one of SNACK*’s many success stories is relayed in a SNACK* Story written by the parents of a child named Jack who was positively impacted by his time in the swim program.
“When Jack first started his swim lessons at SNACK, I'm not sure which one of us was more nervous. It was about 6 months in when he would finally get his hair wet. The teachers were very patient, they knew just when to push and when to give him a little space. The positive reinforcement in their words and the high-fives definitely impacted Jack. He felt like he was doing something good and started feeling proud of himself. They really had the technique he needed and thanks to them he can now swim!”