How does your child react in the water—with pleasure or with pain? Does your child respond to water play with interest and excitement, or does the very mention of water create stress? Let’s look at the reasons why kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) react differently from one another in the water, along with some tips for making water play a safe and enjoyable experience.
The Pleasure Response
Some children find the water pleasing and simply cannot get enough! Some behaviors include splashing the surface of the water, repeatedly jumping into the pool, and going underwater as often as possible. If this is your child, it’s important to understand the reasons why this is happening.
Breaking the surface tension of the pool means hitting the elastic band of water that lies on the surface. Skin is the largest organ, and jumping in, breaking the surface, and hitting the water with force satisfies your child’s sensory needs. Many times, parents will find their child’s ability to concentrate, regulate, and even talk is increased because their sensory needs were met.
The deeper your child goes, the more hydrostatic pressure he/she will experience. This provides that powerful ‘squeeze’ that feels so good on your child’s body. This deep pressure releases dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that makes a person feel happy and washes away adrenaline. One thing to take note of is shallow water breath-holding can be dangerous, so you must limit your child’s number of underwater activities if you find your child is not exhaling or “blowing bubbles” under water.
The Fearful Response
Some children find the water to be scary, fearful, and anxiety-provoking, which can be disruptive to family leisure. It can certainly ruin family vacations or weekend activities if one family member has to be dedicated to a child who does not want to get in the water. Here are some tips to help:
1. Try using socks and canvas shoes
The buoyancy of the water takes away virtually all of the gravity, which can be very scary for some children and can trigger the startle response. Many children rely on that gravity to make sense of where they are in space. One strategy we recommend trying is to put on a pair of cotton socks and canvas shoes. The socks and shoes will help sink the feet to the bottom, giving your child increased awareness of where their feet are. This sense of heaviness often eliminates the fear of floating. Explain to your child that you are going to help that scary feeling go away.
2. Walk with the child in the water
Try walking in the water and talking about how your feet will be on the bottom and how you are safe. You can even make up a song about the water holding you up, such as this one we use:
[To the tune of “Hi-Ho-The Dairy-o.”]
The water holds me up,
The water holds me up,
I’m OK in the pool
The water holds me up
3. Create social stories and watch swim videos together
Another great technique to helping your anxious child warm up to the idea of swimming is to watch videos of kids swimming, floating, and smiling prior to going to the pool. You can turn this into a social story over the next few days to prepare your child for the new activity.
Water is all around us—lakes, pools, oceans, ponds, streams, and even fountains. With drowning being the leading cause of death for children with autism in the US, it’s imperative to help our kids be as safe and independent as possible in and around water. By using these tips, anyone can help turn water time into a fun, enjoyable experience.
The National Autism Association reports that accidental drowning accounted for approximately 90 percent of total U.S. deaths in children with autism ages 14 and younger. As a pediatric occupational and recreational therapist and as co-founder of Swim Angelfish, Cindy has made it her life’s work to reduce this alarming statistic. With 23 locations throughout MA, NH, CT and NY, Swim Angelfish has helped thousands of children learn to swim. In order to reach more children internationally and nationwide, Cindy and Swim Angelfish developed an online training program to offer strategies that aquatic professionals can seamlessly integrate into their existing swim programs. These strategies help address the underlying roadblocks to learning to swim and help children with sensory challenges learn faster and with less discomfort than traditional methods.
This article was featured in Issue 64 – Teaching the Skills Your ASD Child Needs