Why Swimming is a Great Sport for Children and Adults with an Autism Spectrum Disorder

By: Bridget Hobbs, PT, DPT

Photo by Joann Hartley
Photo by Joann Hartley

With April being Autism Awareness Month, I wanted to shed some light on providing physical fitness to children and adults with autism spectrum disorders.  According to the newest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 US children have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.  As an aquatic therapy instructor, I have seen tremendous improvements in physical fitness level, behavior and survival skills in children with autism in the aquatic environment.  Here are some reasons why children and adults with autism thrive in the aquatic setting.

  • Swimming is a life-saving skill. Because children with autism have an increased rate of wandering off, drowning in a near-by lake or pool is a concern.  Swimming incorporates techniques such as floating and treading water so a child would be able to get out of a potential life-threatening situation.
  • Water provides an excellent sensory experience. The resistive and buoyant properties of water make it a very calming environment for children with autism.  Undesired behaviors are often reduced in the aquatic setting and children are more grounded by the water.  Even children that have aversions to textures such as grass and sand will likely feel more at peace in the water.

    Photo by Julie Hermes
    Photo by Julie Hermes
  • Swimming is an excellent aerobic activity. Children with autism are at a higher risk for obesity.  According to a report published in the July-August issue of American Pediatrics, at least one in every three children and adolescents with autism is overweight or obese.  Getting children moving is key, and if they are in an environment they can enjoy, such as the pool, the easier it is to motivate them to get their bodies working.
  • Because many children with autism have difficulty with motor planning and coordination, swimming is a great way for children with autism to work on activities such as: reciprocating both sides of the body, timing of breathing, core and extremity strengthening. These skills transfer well to land-based activities such as throwing, catching and running.
  • Swimming is social! Often times, jumping in the water or swimming the length of the pool can help induce talking in children that are limited verbally.  Kids can also learn a lot from watching each other and can encourage them to try a new skill in the water.

If a more structured swim team would be too much for your child, look into aquatic therapy. The physical and occupational therapy teams at Easter Seals provide aquatic therapy for children with special needs twice a week at local pools.  Please call Easter Seals at 630-620-4433 for more information.

References:

Broder-Fingert S. et al. Acad. Pediatr. 14, 408-414 (2014) PubMed

American Academy of Pediatrics http://www.aap.org

 For more information about Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley please visit EasterSealsDFVR.org.

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One thought on “Why Swimming is a Great Sport for Children and Adults with an Autism Spectrum Disorder

  1. My son is 10 and can swim some with the “board”. Tried one on one instruction 2 years ago and it was a nightmare. He is better now. Hoping he will progress even more this year.

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