7 Tips to Creating a Safe, Healthy Relationship with Water | Organization for Autism Research

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Summer is here and everyone is running to grab their towels, bathing suits, and sunscreen. While vacation and sunshine are much anticipated summer activities, it is important to keep safety on your mind. This week’s blog is written by Kim Shults, who teaches swim lessons to kids with autism. In this article, she outlines a list of tips to keep water safety a priority. Her post originally appeared in the June 2016 edition of the OARacle.   

Cooper, who is on the autism spectrum, loves water. That’s not surprising. Water is beautiful. It glistens and shimmers–it’s attractive and inviting.

Water is magical, especially for individuals with autism. Water has 600 to 700 times the resistance of air, so the hydrostatic pressure improves proprioception, the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself. Water helps balance and movement, which activates learning. Its most beautiful quality is that once you put your ears under the water, all of the input around you disappears. All of the noises and clicks and clanks and birds and cars and horns and lawn mowers and barking and ringing and conversations vanish. The chaos of life is gone.

It’s also dangerous to anyone who does not know how to swim. The National Autism Association cites drowning as one of the leading causes of death of individuals with autism. Rather trying to keep someone with autism from water, it is more beneficial to help the individual create a safe, healthy relationship with it. That relationship may save the person’s life.

Cooper’s mom, Sonja, wanted her son to enjoy water’s magic and to have a healthy relationship it so she contacted me to give him private swim instruction. These are some of the basics I use in teaching kids like Cooper how to have a healthy relationship with water:

  1. Make sure you (or whomever is working with the individual) are comfortable in the water. The learner will feed off of whatever signals the teacher gives. My comfort level in the water is clear, so apprehensive students are able to relax when they are in the water with me. If you are not comfortable and confident, find someone who is.
  2. Prepare for the experience. Use a social story to ease the anticipation. Read Life with Lou, which introduces 10 swimming and water safety skills through a children’s adventure story. Through the book, the skills can be heard, read about, seen, and practiced out of the water.
  3. If possible, find a quiet pool with warm water. This can be difficult but extremely helpful when working with someone new to the water. A bathtub or hot tub set at somewhere between 88 and 92 degrees is a good start. Work in a controlled environment before heading out to a deep pool, lake, or ocean. The moment Cooper enters the 90-degree pool, he is completely relaxed.
  4. Use positive language and reinforcement. If I want Cooper to kick to the other side of the pool and he takes off and swims with great arm strokes, I ignore the fact that he didn’t follow directions. I focus on the fact that he swam efficiently through the water and made it to safety. Use the water for learning and growth, rather than a place to control behavior.
  5. Build off of his strengths and abilities. Swimming is typically a progressive activity, with skills isolated and taught in order, then put together to advance learning. When working with children with autism, this isn’t always the way learning works. Cooper’s super power is foreign languages. He knows how to say and write the alphabet in English, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic. He also knows sign language. Sonja brings him to swim class early and stays late so he can practice on the whiteboard. Cooper doesn’t like floating on his back, so I have him show me the alphabet in sign language while he’s floating. To work on his breath control, I give him chalk and have him write his choice of alphabets underwater on the steps.
  6. Model the behavior you would like to see. When I introduce a skill to Cooper, I show him how to do it correctly. If I ask him to put his face in the water, I first demonstrate what it looks like. I move slowly through the water, minimizing splashing and encouraging a quiet, calm body.
  7. Safety first. Swimming is fun, but it can also be very dangerous. You must be vigilant and watch your child at every moment. The best form of supervision is having your child within arm’s reach in the water at all times. You are there to allow your child explore themagic of the water safely. Drowning is preventable.

A safe, healthy aquatic lifestyle is therapeutic and the benefits of water improve quality of life. Swimming is a tactile activity that encourages neurological development. Water exercise helps maintain a healthy heart, lowers blood pressure, improves energy, builds strength, and reduces stress. When considering all of the therapies and activities available for autism, swimming is one that offers many benefits, including safety.

Make sure the water continues to be a magical and fun place for your child by finding an autism-friendly swim program or coach. You can also look for more information and help in OAR’s Guide to Safety, which includes water safety in its Safety Basics section. As summer approaches, most adults probably happily recall their favorite swimming pool, lake, or ocean beach. You can give your child those same memories to hold onto by giving him or her the confidence and skills needed to be safe in the water.

About the Author: Kim Shults lives in San Diego, Calif., where she has been providing customized swim lessons for all ages and abilities since 1991. She is an innovator in swimming instruction for people with autism and those overcoming water phobias. Her successful record of aquatic breakthroughs inspired her to found Face in Water, a nonprofit organization that helps individuals develop lifesaving water skills. She has a California Teaching Credential in English and is now focusing on bringing aquatic health education to the classroom through her children’s book, Life with Lou. Follow her Water Safety Month Parent Education Series on Facebook.

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