(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – For many families, warmer weather means the start of swim season. But for those with a child on the autism spectrum, swimming can be an intimidating and dangerous proposition. In fact, drowning is the number one cause of accidental death among those on the autism spectrum, meaning parents and caregivers need to be purposeful in teaching them water safety.
“Every kid is a little bit different, and a lot of the big challenges of teaching children with autism have to do with being able to learn in the same way that their peers learn,” said Erika Kemp, clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and The Ohio State University College of Medicine’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “When you think about typical swim lessons, often there is one teacher giving the same instruction to the whole group. That’s where we get into some difficulty with kids with autism. Often, they need the instruction presented in a different way or in a one-on-one environment.”
To give those learners the attention and specialized instruction they need, Kemp led a new pilot study at Ohio State that offers personalized aquatic occupational therapy for young autistic children. Initial results show that the lessons not only improve swim skills and make the water safer, they also build physical, behavioral and social competency that goes beyond the swimming pool.
“Every kid that we’ve put through the program has made gains in things like water adjustment, comfort in the water and their ability to go under the water and hold their breath,” Kemp said. “Then, we work on being able to maintain their balance in the water, maintaining a float and getting themselves to move through the water. We set individual goals for everyone. One child that we’ve been working with wouldn’t even come into the pool at first, and now she willingly gets in, can move through the water and is starting now to lift her feet up off the floor, which is a really big skill gain for her.”
With the success of the pilot program, Ohio State is expanding their research and the adaptive swim program, with the goal of implementing similar programs to help the millions of autistic children safely experience the joys of swimming.
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