Tips for Teaching Kids with Autism to Swim and How to Find Lessons Near You

Autistic kids can benefit tremendously from swimming lessons. Here, some practical tips on how to teach them to swim.

boy-learning-to-swim.jpg Shutterstock
Water holds a special appeal for many children on the autism spectrum—but this fascination can end up being dangerous, especially when coupled with a tendency to wander. Tragically, the National Autism Association reports that between 2009 and 2011, accidental drowning accounted for 91 percent of the total U.S. deaths reported in children with autism ages 14 and younger who had wandered away from their homes, schools, or caregivers.

We can help reduce this risk of accidental drowning—and bring more joy, confidence, and coordination into our autistic kids' lives, as well as improve their learning in other areas, strengthen their bodies, and reduce anxiety, through swimming lessons. But that’s easier said than done, and I know from personal experience that it can be tough to find swimming lessons for a child with special needs. Whether you’re hoping to teach your child yourself or you’re looking for lessons, here’s what you need to know.

Advice from the Pros

Misty Hall, the chair of United States Swim School’s Special Abilities Committee says this: “Cater to the students’ abilities, not disabilities. The students are capable of so much more than most people will give them credit for. Teach them to their abilities, do not focus on what you are told they cannot do.”

This is great advice and it’s important to keep it mind when using Hall’s other tips:

  • Do not use slang or expressive language, as it may not be understood. Use clear, direct instructions. These will help kids who are more literal minded understand what to do.
  • Be consistent. Repetitive skill practice can enhance student learning.
  • Introduce change slowly. Do not bounce from one skill to the next, as it can be confusing. Spend time laying out a lesson that will benefit the child best and slowly introduce the changes or transitions. 
  • Celebrate ALL triumphs. It may be as simple as touching the tip of their nose to the water, or it could be swimming the full length of the pool with a new stroke. Show them their accomplishment is big. 
  • Allow time in class for “free time." Give the students time to explore the water. This may include freedom from their wheelchair, being held but allowed free movements, or spending “quiet time” underwater. Always strongly supervise this time for safety but allow them the freedom. Many students attend multiple therapy sessions and doctors' appointments and are working hard on new skills, so this can be a refreshing time for the students to just be free. It can also help the instructor get to know them on a new level. 

So what does all this mean in practice? Mary and Andrew Ross, founders of Sensory Swim, a popular one-on-one swimming program in Virginia and Maryland that has taught more than 4,000 students in the last 10 years, shared some of the nuts and bolts of an actual swimming lesson for an autistic child.

"Teaching a child on the spectrum is an uphill battle if you don't address the fears and behaviors," says Andrew Ross. "When it comes down to swimming, it's kicking, breathing, and strokes—nothing more. But if a child is fearful, you need to get them to relax and trust you. Group lessons often don't provide this opportunity. Most instructors will repeat 'there is nothing to be scared of' over and over again, but that's the wrong way to handle it. If a kid is scared that they will go under, we tell them that we are scared to go under as well. Then we say, 'Let's do it together.' Vulnerability is a powerful tool when used properly. Too many instructors will force a kid under but will not go under with them. We share this experience with them and celebrate every small win."

Mary agrees, saying, "The best thing you can do is teach your child how to breathe properly above water first. Our bodies' natural reaction is to close our mouth and tense up while holding our breath. Kids need to relax and breathe out in short puffs, like blowing out birthday candles. Another way to accomplish this is to have them make a loud noise like Tarzan. This way they are breathing out. When they go under they need to close their lips and say 'mmmm.' A key note for parents is to make sure this experience is also fun."

How to Find Swimming Lessons in Your Area

Although you can use the expert advice above to teach your child how to swim, many places offer special needs swim lessons. Here’s how to find them: 

  • Look for a swim school that is a member of the United States Swim School Association.  The association teaches a course internationally that trains swim instructors how to teach swimmers with special abilities. 
  • Check out the YMCA's state-by-state list of locations that offer Special Needs Swimming Instructions at the National Autism Association's website.
  • Sensory Swim has locations in Bel Air and Lutherville, Maryland; and Chantilly, Springfield, and Sterling, Virginia. The instructors are also willing to travel to train other teachers. They also offer workshops to train parents in their methods.
  • Safe Splash Swim School has locations in 13 states and you can click on the map on its website to see if there's one near you.
  • SWIMkids USA has an amazing facility for swimming, gymnastics, and dance near Phoenix, Arizona.
  • Also, talk to your local pool or contact occupational therapists in your area—you might be surprised at what is offered for autistic kids. (Asking around like this is how I found a wonderful gymnastics teacher for my son, so you never know what you'll find unless you ask!)

Parent Success Stories

Lots of parents report that swimming lessons have worked for their kids on the spectrum! Katie Dimmel, a mom from St. Paul, MN who has three girls (one with autism), shared this: "We did swimming lessons through Community Education. I let them know of my daughter’s diagnosis when I registered her, and told them she had a lot of sensory issues. I registered her in the same class as her two sisters. They said that was fine and that they would let the teachers know. They were great with her! They almost always had an extra teacher just for her but not when it would embarrass her—only when they were doing specific exercises. Her sensory issues made some things impossible for her (for now anyway), like the back float (water in her ears) and some of the strokes (water in her eyes). Jumping in from the side of the pool or a diving board were all quite challenging. All sensory-related stuff was super hard, but she learned so much and gained so much confidence!"

Patty Moore from Boston, MA teaches kindergarteners with autism and has two sons on the spectrum, both of whom love to swim, surf, and boat. "Water and music have been the most therapeutic remedies for my sons' anxiety," she says. "But finding the right swim teacher/coach can be hard. More autism-friendly swim lessons are definitely needed."

With all this in mind, I look forward to getting my own autistic son in the water and helping him feel more calm, confident, and happy as he learns to swim.