Surprising Benefits of Swimming for Autistic Children
Imagine there was a way to improve your child’s concentration, mental alertness, responsiveness, and peace of mind in 30-40 minutes.
It might sound like a far-fetched idea for many, but the truth is swimming can do all of the above, and some studies back it up.
Swimming isn’t just a workout for the body; it also works the mind, and its benefits outlast the time in the pool.
Day-to-day challenges faced by autistic children like anxiety, concentration, overstimulation, and social interaction can all be improved.
As a 27-year-old autistic man, I’ve seen first-hand the positive impact swimming has had on my life and happiness.
From the age of 10 to 22, I was a competitive swimmer, training 30 hours a week in the pool alongside Commonwealth, World, and Olympic medalists.
After I stopped swimming, I turned my hand to teaching and coaching the sport. I’ve worked with hundreds of children in the pool from three-year-old beginners all the way to national-level teenagers. I’ve seen it all when it comes to the benefits of swimming, whether for neurotypicals, children with physical or learning difficulties, or, of course, children with autism.
Swimming is more than just an energy release. Let’s talk about some of the surprising benefits the sport holds.
Meditation without having to meditate
If you’ve ever tried meditating yourself, you’ll know how hard it can be to sit still and let your mind switch off. Fortunately, you don’t have to sit still and clear your mind to receive a meditative-like effect.
One of the first noticeable benefits of swimming is its ability to calm the mind. Personally, I’ve gone into swimming sessions feeling stressed and anxious and come out of the pool without a worry. It’s almost unbelievable how effective it can be at easing your mind. The bonus: you don’t even have to try to do anything special—just turn up and swim.
On land, you can breathe whenever you want. You never have to think about it, so in order to meditate, you have to keep your mind focused on your breath and attempt to pull your focus back whenever it wanders. As a parent of an autistic child, I’m sure you can imagine the amount of focus needed for your child to do this.
When you’re swimming, since you can’t breathe whenever you want, you’re forced to constantly think about your breathing pattern. One of the first things your child will be taught is to blow bubbles under the water and breathe as he/she lifts his/her head out the water.
As your child progresses through the lessons, he/she will be taught to breathe every two or three strokes. The repetitive counting of strokes, combined with the focus on breathing, can be incredibly soothing and can stop the mind from wandering and worrying about your surroundings.
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In the water, everything feels…calmer.
It’s like all the noise, feelings, and business of the outside world just stop. The feeling of the water is interesting, and the way light moves through it can be fascinating. Of course, swimming pools can also be noisy environments, and the uncertainty of the water can be overwhelming for some children. However, for most children, water seems to be a very soothing place.
For children with autism, water offers resistance, pressure, comfortable temperatures, and pleasant sensory arousal. It’s stimulating, but it’s the right kind of stimulating. On top of that, there’s generally less social pressure in the water since class sizes are limited, and it’s pretty easy to ignore the world around you when you’re so focused on staying above water.
It can go wrong. Sometimes, swimming lessons can be a hectic environment, and that’s not to mention those horrible latex caps. I used to teach an autistic child who was incredibly touch-sensitive, and his parents thought he’d never wear a swimming cap.
He compared the feeling to being scratched by knives. If your local swimming lesson provider asks children to wear swimming caps, I’d recommend getting a polyester cap. They’re soft to the touch and don’t feel too restrictive.
To combat the hectic feeling swimming pools can have, I’d recommend booking one-on-one or one-on-two classes. They’re often a lot calmer, with not as many kids screaming and swimming teachers shouting over the loud kids.
Also, get a sense of how much your local pool echoes. I’ve been in some pools that are far louder than others simply because of the shape of the roof. As ridiculous as it sounds, you end up having to shout over your echo to be heard.
Mind workouts and taking instruction
It’s no secret children on the autism spectrum can have difficulty with communication and often issues in taking instruction. It can be challenging in a classroom environment; for instance, learning about math through verbal explanation alone and then the next second, you’re on to learning about another subject before you’ve even got a grasp of the first.
Swimming, or sports in general, can be hugely beneficial for teaching children how to effectively take instructions without the pressures felt in a more formal environment.
Firstly, any decent swimming instructor will always explain instructions through demonstration. Instructions like “I want you to swim to that cone with big arms” will be followed up by the teacher demonstrating this on the poolside or another child demonstrating in the water.
It will then be up to your child to figure out how to get his/her body to move in the way that has been described. Sometimes, the teacher will help your child by physically moving his/her arms for him/her so he/she can experience how each movement is supposed to feel.
Not only does this help with taking instruction and application of instruction, but it also helps to develop your child’s fine motor skills. Fine motor skills are crucial in day-to-day activities like washing your hands, making your food, getting dressed, or using a computer.
Due to the constant use of fine motor skills and awareness of your own body, your mind is being stimulated throughout a swimming session. By the end of a swimming lesson, there’s often a sense of peace within the children because they’ve had adequate mental and physical stimulation for 30 to 40 minutes.
Teaching your child how to swim moves far beyond the survival benefits you’d initially think about. Swimming provides your child with mental and physical stimulation while teaching key skills like instruction-taking, turn-taking, repetition, and breathing skills that translate to day-to-day activities outside of the pool.
Of course, don’t expect your child to take to the water instantly. I’d highly recommend you persevere, even if it feels like nothing is working just yet. I’ve seen many kids, autistic and not, cry and kick up a fuss about getting in the pool for weeks and weeks before suddenly, there’s a light bulb moment.
They managed to blow bubbles for the first time. They managed to push off the wall on their own for the first time. They have a moment of confidence—and that can make all the difference for a child with autism.
This article was featured in Issue 106 –Maintaining a Healthy Balance With ASD