Swimming Lessons for Children With Special Needs

For kids with special needs, swim lessons can be extremely beneficial. Local experts share tips on finding a program and signing kids up.

Just because a child has special needs doesn’t mean he cannot to learn to swim, says Ronda Brodsky, the aquatics director at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, and author of Aquatastic: Swimming Made Simple.

“Teaching a child with special needs should be no different than teaching any other child,” adds Shari Strauss, instructor and manager of the Canton Aqua Tots location. “Your main goal should be to show them how to be safe in the water to the best of their capability.”

Strauss offers several helpful tips when considering a swim program for a special-needs child.

  • Before enrolling in swim lessons, keep your goals and expectations in check. If possible, set those goals with your child. For example, have a goal of holding her breath underwater for five seconds or floating on her back independently for five seconds.
  • Find an instructor who has experience teaching children with special needs. This will make the transition into lessons much easier for both parent and child. Instructor consistency is also important. Will your child be with the same instructor on a regular basis?
  • Look for a facility that has the appropriate accommodations, especially for those with physical handicaps such as lift chairs to help ease swimmers in and out of the water.
  • Are you able to schedule a private or semi-private lessons if necessary? Some facilities have limited availability if a parent feels his or her child would do best in a smaller class or individual lessons.
  • Don’t expect a change overnight. Learning some of the safety-based skills can take time.

Teaching a child with special needs the fundamentals of swimming and an understanding of water safety is especially important because so many children – particularly those with autism – are naturally drawn to the water but don’t know basic water safety.

Almost half of all children on the autism spectrum engage in wandering behaviors according to the Autism Safety Coalition. Sadly, drowning accounts for nearly 90 percent of deadly outcomes related to wandering. In July 2015, the body of Omarion Humphrey, a 9-year-old Michigan boy with autism, was found in a Davision Township lake.

Beyond safety, swim lessons are also important because once a child is comfortable in the water, or being in a lake or pool, it can provide an enjoyable sensory experience, according to Brodsky. Even the child who doesn’t like the sensation of water in his face can still learn to swim.

“When kids with special needs learns to swim, most don’t have the correct stroke. Many won’t ever put their faces in the water. That’s OK. It’s more about safety than technique,” says Brodsky.

Adds Strauss: “Always remember that your child is unique and different from any other child in the world. This means that they will always learn at their own pace and in their own way. Don’t push them or demand that they do something they’re uncomfortable doing.”


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