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Why I Got Swimming Lessons for my Son with Autism

This guest blog post is by Nationally Certified Educational Diagnostician Dana Walker. She has worked in the special education field for 14 years.  She is a mom to two sons, Brady (9) and Grayson (4).

Considering swim lessons for your child? Answering that question may be difficult for any parent, but for a parent with a child with autism the decision can be downright challenging. For several years, I had been deliberating about swim lessons for my son, because I was terrified after seeing news report upon news report of children with autism wandering away from their home and drowning in lakes, pools, and ponds. In fact, data shows drowning is the one of the leading causes of death for a child or adult who has autism.  I wanted to do everything in my power to reduce the risk of drowning if my son was near water. 

I knew he needed lessons.  But where was I to take him?  This started my hunt for a facility that both understood my son’s needs and were capable of meeting his learning differences.  I finally decided to dive in “head first” and began researching.  I started my search on the internet and called several swim programs.  After two days of calling, I received responses like, "Well... we would be willing to take your son, but were not really trained for that" or  "We’re training our employees right now to work with children with autism so can you call back next summer?"  One facility was happy to give me the application, but after meeting my son said they would call me back to discuss how we could make the lessons work out.  They never called. I was starting to lose hope, but something continued to nudge me to keep searching.   I finally found the perfect place!

Texas Swim Academy (located in Katy, Texas) has been open since 2012. It is owned and operated by Kathleen McMordie, RN. When I toured the facility the staff was very welcoming and didn't even blink when I told them I was searching for swim lessons for my son who has autism. I was somewhat shocked, especially after all the negativity I had been getting from other facilities so I repeated myself to make sure they clearly heard the word autism. Much to my amazement they heard me the first time and were willing to take my son as a student in the Special Abilities Swim Program.

As I was filling out the application my fears returned in full force:  "How will my son be able to cognitively fulfill the tasks expected of him?” and “Will there be staff trained to work with children on the spectrum?"  My son has a cognitive delay, moderate autism, ADHD, is non-verbal and requires hand-over-hand for several daily activities. My worries were lessened as I continued to review the application. Within the application, there was a questionnaire which allowed me to explain how my child learns best (using picture systems, sign language, praise, hand-over-hand, sensory tools) as well as what to avoid during the lessons. The receptionist assured me anything Brady needed Texas Swim Academy would provide.  They had the perfect teacher in mind with the experience and special training needed to work with Brady.  In fact the swim academy’s goal is to provide families in Katy and the greater Houston area access to a result-oriented swimming program which is inclusive of all kids.  Kathleen McMordie sought out the Aqua Pro Swim School in San Diego, which has an established program for children with autism; so that she and her teaching staff could learn the techniques and teaching tools to help children with autism learn to swim. Not only has some of her staff traveled to San Diego for extensive training, but Aqua Pro Swim School instructors have also traveled to Katy to train those that could not travel.

We started lessons on June 22, 2014.  Throughout the lessons Brady's teacher, Coach Brian, has provided constant encouragement, taught Brady initial concepts at his own pace, and used extensive repeat review so that he can become proficient at the skills needed to build him up to swimming independently.   After four lessons, Brady was able to move his arms in an up-down motion about 2-3ft and place both hands on the side of the pool so he could pull himself up. To some 2-3ft may not seem like a lot, but those few seconds of paddling in the water could buy him the time he needs for someone to save him from drowning. I am so pleased with the progress Brady has made. I love hearing the swim coach yell words of encouragement to Brady like, "You used both hands!" and "Good kicking!"  Brady has now had 11 lessons and he has made so much improvement with the techniques he has been taught.  I have recently joined Brady in the water for his lessons to do a tag-team approach. Just this week he has started to glide in the water (with assistance) and place his face in the water while making swim-like motions!

I am so glad that I made the decision to place Brady into swim lessons. I know that with additional practice and help by Coach Brian and Texas Swim Academy, Brady will beat the odds that are so against our children that have autism and water concerns.  I will be comforted knowing that he is learning the skills that will keep him safe near and in the water.

I also would like to say a big thank you to Autism Speaks for providing grant money to Texas Swim Academy for those students that are on the spectrum. Swim lessons do not come cheap, but are deeply needed for these students.  With this grant, families will be able to get more lessons for their money.

Find out which programs around the country received a swimming safety scholarship from Autism Speaks. For information about the Autism Speaks Swimming and Water Safety Scholarship Fund, click here.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.