“Aggghhhhhhhhh!!!!” Sara screams as her parents struggle to get her into her bathing suit for her first swim lesson. She’s terrified of the water, the unfamiliar surroundings, and the change in routine. Fortunately her instructor, Nancy (a certified recreation therapist) understands her fear.

Calmly and methodically, Nancy works to put Sara at ease by asking her to “show me what you can do.” Nancy knows that Sara will not respond well to traditional swim instruction and, instead, relies on Sara to show her how to teach her to swim.

Sara has been diagnosed with autism – the most common of the five pervasive developmental disabilities (PDD) that strike the sensory system (and sometimes cognition) in one of every 166 children in the U.S., according to the Autism Society of America (ASA). The other four PDD’s are: Asperger Disorder, Rett’s Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).

Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other governmental agencies, the ASA believes autism is growing at the startling rate of 10-17 percent per year. They estimate the prevalence of autism could reach four million Americans in the next decade.

Because the number of diagnosed cases of autism (and other PDD’s) is on the rise, you may soon find your agency struggling to develop programming for these kids. The four strategies below describe how you can help a child diagnosed with a PDD learn to swim and, eventually, experience more success at home and school.

These techniques can transform a student from a screaming child flailing his or her arms and legs to one who experiences laughter, self-confidence and skill mastery.

Swimming Strategies for Children with Autism

There are several reasons why a child with PDD has difficulty responding to traditional swimming instruction. First, he/she often lacks muscle tone; to swim you need strong muscles. Second, he/she may lack muscle coordination; to swim you must synchronize the movement of your arms and legs. Third, practice helps a child develop coordination and strength; a student with PDD requires additional practice for a longer period of time. And, finally, because a child with PDD perceives many sensations as threatening, he/she needs to tackle skills in small increments, at his or her own pace.

Step One -- Explain the Procedure

Sara needs to become familiar with the new facility; it enables her to feel safe. For several weeks, Sara and her aide arrive early and take a tour of the swimming area. Sara’s aide shows her where to change, where to store her clothes and how to take a shower. They walk into the area and place their towels on a chair. Sara’s aide shows her the shallow end and explains that Sara can climb up the ladder or walk up the stairs to exit the swimming area.

Step Two -- Let Me Watch

Before Sara ever gets into the water, she takes time to get used to the idea of swim lessons by watching her older sister’s lessons. Accompanied by her aide, Sara tours the swimming area.

Together, they sit on a bench and, as Sara snuggles close, they watch the other children riding

sea horse noodles, sinking low in the water and practicing their crocodile eyes.

Several times Sara’s aide points to the children and asks her what they’re doing and talks with her about blowing bubbles and getting her face wet. When the time comes for Sara to actively participate in the lesson, she will be allowed to put her own twist on the lesson – doing it in whatever manner she feels most comfortable.

In addition to the value Sara receives from watching others, this special moment with her aide gives Sara time to transition. These transitions are difficult for a typical child, but for a child with autism they can be traumatic. If Sara isn’t allowed to become accustomed to the to the swimming area, she might spend half her lesson working to get comfortable enough to simply follow direction.

Step Three -- Show Me

“Show me what you can do.”

Wow! Imagine that you are Sara. The moving water frightens you. The other children’s activity

threatens you. And, you don’t want anyone to touch you; it’s uncomfortable.

So, instead of telling you to dip your head under water or blow bubbles, your instructor, Nancy, smiles and says; “Show me what you can do.”

Sara realizes her instructor is not asking her to do anything scary or hurtful. She realizes she can do a lot of things. She feels in control.

Eventually, Sara and her aide join a group of children. Her instructor asks everyone to blow bubbles. Sara’s aide turns to her and says, “Show me how you can blow bubbles Sara.”

Together, Sara and her aide blow a hole in the water. Neither of them gets their face wet.

Then, her instructor asks everyone to bob.

Sara’s aide says to her, “Show me how to put your face in the water.”

Together Sara and her aide slowly, carefully place the tip of their chin in the water.

When Sara’s aide puts Sara’s needs before the desire for conformity, she forms a strong relationship with Sara and reduces resistance. In other words, she prepares Sara so she can learn to swim. Soon, Sara, when she is ready, places her face in the water and glides.

Step Four -- Develop A Consistent Routine

All children feel more comfortable with a routine, but a student with autism requires one to gain control over threatening sensations.

In each swim lesson, Sara follows the same pattern though not necessarily the same activities. For instance, Sara arrives for class and sits on the bench. “Sara, it’s your turn,” Nancy says as she lifts the mat out of the water. Sara walks over and helps Nancy place the mat on the deck. They sit down and do two warm up exercises. After they finish, they sit on the edge of the pool, kick their feet, twist their torso, place both hands on the edge and slide into the water. Now they tackle the back float and walk through the water. When class is about to finish, Nancy prepares Sara. “Sara, we have one minute left,” she says as they move toward the ladder. After one minute, Nancy closes the lesson by saying, “Thank you for coming, goodbye Sara.” At this prompt, Sara immediately climbs up the ladder and exits the pool with her aide.


Eventually, Sara learns to go under, over and through a hula-hoop as she talks about computers and dinosaurs. Later in the year, a friend and her sister join her during the class and soon the self-proclaimed “chicken of the deep” is swimming in water over her head. She joins a more advanced class and begins asking Nancy how she can perfect her strokes.

Sara no longer needs her aide to accompany her to the pool and she does not need to come early. As a matter of fact, she now wants to show her little sister how to jump into the pool. At school, her teacher’s remark that this once uncommunicative child tells everyone about her swimming lessons. Sara has felt the joy of mastering a skill and her confidence has grown. And that is a good thing.

Soon, she has outgrown Nancy’s classes and moves into traditional swim instruction. But, more exciting, Sara is now able to go to a public beach and enjoy the experience. Instead of sitting on a towel and screaming, she is having fun and even plays with the other children.

Paula Wanzer , MA, CTRS, is a certified recreation therapist, co-owner of One Step Further with Nancy Pleiter-Sadowy, M.Ed., CTRS and author of Surf’s Up For Flynn, a book documenting how one of Nancy’s students with autism glided from fear to triumph using these strategies. You can contact her at osfpw1@aol.com