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To meet the unique needs of an swimmer with autism in an aquatic environment, a very small teacher-student ratios is required; typically, a one-to-one ratio will be necessary.

Be aware of the swimmer's response to the change of sensory stimuli in the aquatic setting. The environment may heighten sensory overload because of the numbers of swimmers, toys, and objects in the pool setting. The environment may change sensory stimulation and perception as the swimmer is exposed to a different medium, different temperatures, waves, light reflection on the water, and different pressure sensations. If the swimmer moves while under the surface of the water, their stimulation may actually be reduced and be more manageable - noise may be muted, kinesthetic and proprioceptive sensations are negated because of constant hydrostatic pressure, and visual images may be blurred.

A set routine and careful transition from one activity to the next allows the swimmer with autism to prepare him or herself to learn. If possible, the swimmer should be given a picture of his swimming teacher which the classroom teacher, physical education teacher, or parent should let the swimmer select or see prior to coming to the pool.

During the swimming instruction period, Bliss symbols or task cards can be used to help the swimmer move, for example, from a warm-up activity to stroke work or from kicking drills to a water game. A similar plan needs to be in place to assure a transition to the activity in which the student will engage after swimming. For example, the swimmer may have a symbol card which shows a person taking a shower, then dressing, and leaving the pool. The best way to keep the cards from being damaged by the water is to laminate a card and the put one in a zip lock bag. NOTE: If the swimmer is already using a particular symbol/task card system at school of home, the aquatics instructor should attempt to use the same type of symbol/task cards. 

Typically, the best strategy for intervention includes:

  • Use the swimmer's name
  • Pair the demonstration with a one-word or two-word cue
  • Always pair the same demonstration with the same cue
  • The swimmer should have a "home base" in every setting, a place designated specifically for him. For example, in the pool, the swimmer should have a particular spot on the side to which he returns after a given activity.
  • Each lesson should begin and end with the same greeting, using the swimmer's name, and expecting a response.
  • Each phase of the program should be introduced the same way. Show the symbol/task card and give the activity the same name every day.
  • The teacher should use equipment of the same type, color, and texture to work on the same skills.
    • For example, if the swimmer with autism started working on the flutter kick using the yellow, nubby textured, frog kickboard ... then the teacher should always use the yellow, nubby textured, frog kickboard when working on the flutter kick.
    • The teacher may make an exception if the swimmer takes a particular interest in a different kickboard or prop.
  • If at all possible, the aquatics instructor should use the behavior management plan being used by the child's classroom teacher or that used in the home (hopefully, they are the same).

There are several strategies that are effective in eliminating or reducing inappropriate behavior:

  • Redirect the swimmer! ?If the swimmer with autism is spitting, lower the face close to the water to allow him or her to blow bubbles. If the swimmer with autism is kicking at the teacher, put him or her in a prone or supine position to allow him or her to kick at the surface of the water.
  • Simplify the task! ?If the swimmer with autism experiences frustration, he or she may act inappropriately. Make the task simpler. For example, if the swimmer is having difficulty pulling his or her arms contralaterally, demonstrate the most basic pull ?a homologous pull (both arms move together).
  • Reduce the stimulation!?If the swimmer with autism is having difficulty dealing with the stimuli in the aquatic environment, the teacher might move the swimmer to a smaller pool, a corner of the deck to do land drills, etc.

Aerobic activity may reduce the nature and type of self-stimulatory behavior in which the swimmer with autism engages. Seek to provide the opportunity for sustained movement which allows the elevation of the heart rate to target.

Autistic swimmers often choose to swim, almost dolphin-like primarily under water (I suspect because it reduces and mutes sensory stimuli). The instructor can best facilitate acquisition of swimming skill by spotting to ensure the swimmer learns to get breaths regularly, instead of waiting until he is out of breath; this facilitates aerobic activity. This can best be accomplished by observing the student and noting when paddling movements begin to be randomized and less effective. Then, the teacher can help by pushing the swimmer with autism toward the surface; this is easier if the teacher is also swimming underwater.


Written by Carol Huettig, Ph.D.
Edited by Gary Christopher, MS, ATC, July 2004
Please reprint only with permission of the author

page last updated 1/2/2013 4:34 PM