At my house, we love swimming lessons in the summer! My five year-old daughter told me that her favorite part of summer is going to swimming lessons every day (we really just do about 6 weeks of lessons, 5 days a week). For my 9 year-old son with autism (Paul), swimming lessons can also provide good therapy for him.
I love swimming lessons as a mom because it adds so much structure to our day, and my kids do so much better with structure. I like to have a very structured morning with everyone going on a bike ride, completing chores, practicing, reading, and then swimming lessons right before lunch. Swimming lessons wear my kids out and then we have a fairly calm afternoon.
Swimming has so many benefits, especially for sensory kids. Here are just a few of the benefits of swimming:
- Provides excellent proprioceptive input. (Swimming is hard work—resistance for the entire body.)
- Reduces hyperactivity.
- Strengthens muscles.
- Increases attention span.
- Improves gross motor skills and coordination.
- Increases confidence.
For my son Paul, who struggles with a lot of sensory issues, swimming does so much for him. He also loves to swim; he loves the feel of the water on his body. We are hoping he can eventually learn the strokes well enough that he might be able to join a swim team at some point (if he wants to). Swimming is a great individual sport and could provide an extracurricular sport that is also therapeutic for him.
Sometimes it is hard to find the right fit for swimming lessons so that your child can receive the greatest benefit. When you have a child with special needs, it is important to really think about how their specific disabilities may affect them in the pool.
The first thing to address when trying to find the right fit for swimming lessons, is to decide what your goal is for the lessons. If your goal is to provide a social experience and get some exercise, you just need to find a pool with a positive reputation. If you really want your child to learn the strokes correctly, you might want to do some extra research to find a program that will really meet your goals and the special needs of your child. If you have a child with autism, I found this website extremely helpful and informative.
The second thing to think about is whether you should put your child in private or group lessons. I strongly recommend private swimming lessons if your child struggles with a severe fear of water, body awareness, motor planning, auditory processing, hearing loss, or seizures. You also need to think about if you need a professional swim instructor who has experience working with children with special needs. If you have a child who is high functioning, they might be fine in a group lesson taught at a city recreation pool.
After a lot of private swimming lessons, we tried group lessons for Paul at the end of the summer a couple of years ago. It provided another positive social experience for Paul, but it did not help him become a better swimmer. The teacher could not spend enough time with him individually to really help him understand how to do the strokes correctly. His lack of body awareness (understanding where your body is in space) was very evident in watching him try to do the strokes. He has a hard time integrating breathing with the motion of the arms and legs. Also, because Paul struggles with auditory processing, the noise and splashing of the other kids made it difficult for him to process all the instructions in the noisy pool. Paul also frequently requires more explanation than his peers to understand what he is supposed to do, so it just wasn’t a good fit to have him in a group lesson.
One thing to really check into is if a pool in your area has an Adaptive Aquatics program. We were so lucky to find an Adaptive Aquatics program about 15 minutes from our house. Adaptive Aquatics provides swimming lessons for children with special needs. At the pool we go to, Adaptive Aquatics provides private lessons for the same price as a regular group swimming lesson. That way, Paul can have the private swimming lessons that he needs, and all of my other kids can be in swimming lessons at the same time. It has worked out so well for my entire family! Many communities have swimming programs for children with special needs—it is definitely worth checking out.
If you have a child who is very afraid of the water, my personal feeling is that you NEED to get them into swimming lessons as soon as you can. It is important for every child to understand how to be safe in the water and to be comfortable in the water. The only way to overcome a fear is to address it. You have to be slow and systematic as you desensitize fear. It also has to be a very positive, nurturing environment to be able work through a fear. Sometimes the progress is very slow. Start with just getting the toes wet. Whenever we have tried to help Paul through something he is terribly afraid of, it is amazing how it increases his confidence when he is able to work through his fears.
We have seen a lot of progress in the last few years with Paul’s ability to swim. He is enjoying it more and is feeling more confident in the water every year.
Internet Resources for Swimming Lessons for Children with Special Needs: