Improving your child’s concentration, mental alertness, responsiveness, and peace of mind in 30-40 minutes sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? The truth is – swimming can do all of the above, and many studies confirm the benefits of swimming for autism.
Swimming isn’t just a workout for the body or an energy release. It also works the mind, and its benefits outlast the time in the pool. Let’s dive into the most important benefits of swimming for autism and see how you can use this incredible sport to help your child.
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1. Swimming Is A Perfect Way to Calm the Mind
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. 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. 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 think about your breathing pattern constantly. One of the first things your child will be taught is to blow bubbles under the water and breathe as they lift their head out.
As your child progresses through the lessons, they will be taught to breathe every two or three strokes. The repetitive counting of strokes and the focus on breathing can be incredibly soothing and stop the mind from wandering and worrying.
2. Swimming Helps With Sensory Deprivation
In the water, everything feels…calmer. All the noise, feelings, and business of the outside world 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, water seems to be a very soothing place for most children.
For children with autism, water offers resistance, pressure, comfortable temperatures, and pleasant sensory arousal. One of the main benefits of swimming for autism is that 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. It’s pretty easy to ignore the world around you when you’re so focused on staying above water.
Sometimes, however, swimming lessons can be hectic. 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 recommend 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 calmer, with not as many 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 must shout over your echo to be heard.
3. Swimming Can Improve Taking Instructions
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.
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.
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 their body to move in the way that has been described. Sometimes, the teacher will help your child by physically moving their arms so they can experience how each movement is supposed to feel.
4. Swimming Develops Motor Skills
Not only does swimming help with taking instruction and applying instruction, but it also helps to develop your child’s fine motor skills. Fine motor skills are crucial in daily activities like washing your hands, making food, getting dressed, or using a computer.
Due to the constant use of fine motor skills during swim therapy for autism, your child’s mind is constantly stimulated. By the end of a swimming lesson, the children often have a sense of peace because they’ve had adequate mental and physical stimulation.
How to Help An Autistic Child Embrace Swimming?
Swimming lessons for an autistic child can be highly beneficial. Helping your child learn to swim can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience for both of you. But how do you teach your child with autism how to swim?
- Choose the Right Environment
Select a swimming pool or area that is calm, clean, and not too crowded. Autistic children may be sensitive to sensory stimuli, so a quieter and less stimulating environment can be helpful.
- Find a Qualified Instructor
Look for a swimming instructor with experience working with children with special needs, including autism. They should be patient, empathetic, and knowledgeable about different teaching methods.
- Gradual Introduction
Begin by introducing your child to the water gradually. You can start with simple activities like splashing in shallow water, pouring water over their hands, or letting them sit on the poolside with their feet in the water to get used to the sensation.
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- Provide Sensory Support
Be aware of your child’s sensory sensitivities. If they are sensitive to certain textures or sensations, consider using swimwear that is comfortable for them. Some children may prefer wearing a wet suit for the added sensory input.
- Be Patient and Stay Consistent
Children with autism may take longer to learn new skills, including swimming. Stay patient and remain calm, even if there are challenges. Celebrate small victories and progress.
Consistency is essential for children with autism. Try to maintain a regular swimming lesson schedule so your child knows what to expect.
- Prioritize Safety
Ensure that safety is a top priority. Always supervise your child while in the water, and consider using flotation devices or life jackets if needed.
If you encounter significant difficulties, consider seeking guidance from a pediatric occupational therapist or a behavioral therapist working with autistic children.
Swimming Benefits Children with Autism in Many Different Ways
Teaching your child to swim moves far beyond the survival benefits you initially thought about, from breathing skills to instruction-taking, repetition, and turn-taking.
All of these translate to day-to-day activities outside the pool. Of course, don’t expect your child to take to the water instantly. I highly recommend you persevere, even if nothing is working.
I’ve seen many kids, autistic and not, cry and kick up a fuss about getting in the pool. This goes on 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, which can make all the difference for a child with autism.
This article was featured in Issue 106 –Maintaining a Healthy Balance With ASD
Q: Is swimming good for all autistic children?
A: Swimming is great for autistic kids, helping them not only physically but also improving their overall well-being. Learning to swim is crucial for their safety and contributes to their overall health. Although some autistic children struggle with sensory issues connected to water, many are drawn to it for sensory stimulation.
Q: Can autistic people swim?
A: Yes, autistic people can learn to swim just like anyone else. With proper support and teaching methods, many autistic individuals can enjoy and benefit from swimming.
Q: What are the benefits of autism swim therapy?
A: Autism swim therapy provides both physical and overall well-being benefits, such as improving motor skills, speech, confidence, and cognitive processing. It helps them learn a crucial life skill for self-protection while also enhancing their general health and happiness.
Q: What sport is autism-friendly?
A: Swimming, track and field, cycling, and soccer are great sports for kids with autism because they offer a structured and predictable setting, making children feel more at ease and secure.
Q: Do autistic people like taking baths, showering, or water in general?
A: People with autism might find taking a shower challenging because of sensory issues. The sound and feel of running water, as well as being wet, can be overwhelming for them. On the other hand, many individuals on the spectrum are drawn to water, as they find the sensation soothing and stimulating. Relationship with water depends on personal sensory preferences, so it’s best to talk to your child and a professional about it.
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