How to Teach an Autistic Child to Swim

Ella Rain
teaching swimming

Many parents and professionals want to know how to teach an autistic child to swim. Some children naturally love the water while others are very apprehensive. It is important to address swimming on an individual basis for best results.

Can Children with Autism Swim?

Children with autism can usually do anything neurotypical children can as long as they have proper guidance. It helps to recognize how an activity like swimming can benefit kids on the spectrum. The activity is great for children who may need help with sensory processing, gross motor development, and following directions.

Sensory Processing

Sensory processing can be challenging, and swimming can be a great outlet for some children. Some things to consider include:

  • How the child responds to water
    • Is the child likely to "stim" in the water?
    • Is water upsetting or frightening?
    • Does the child's behavior change in the water, whether improved or regressed?
  • Sensitivity to smells, especially chlorine
  • Auditory processing
    • Is he or she able to process verbal instruction while other noises are prevalent?
  • Vestibular
    • Is he or she normally apprehensive when going down a slide?
    • Are there any problems with motion in general?

    Being in water can be either a great source of pleasure or a considerable source of discomfort. It helps to approach the activity according to the child's preferences. For example, a person who is uncomfortable in the water will require more steps to achieve success, especially if you are going to use desensitization.

    Gross Motor Skills

    Swimming is an excellent activity for developing gross motor skills because it exercises the largest muscles in the body. It is important to assess the level of ability before teaching the autistic child how to swim. In some cases, the individual may exhibit improved gross motor skills in the water but this isn't always the case.

    Following Directions

    Knowing how to teach an autistic child to swim involves evaluating his or her cognitive processing skills. Swimming can help when a student has the opportunity to process each step systematically. In some cases, it may be necessary to break down the lesson into extremely small steps, beginning with tolerating putting feet in the water.

    How to Teach an Autistic Child to Swim

    Teaching swimming to a child with autism can take considerable time, especially if the child has an aversion to water. The initial step is observation and evaluation, followed by a plan of action. The plan should be broken down into small, achievable steps. Each child is different so it is critical to create a system specific to the child you are working with.

    NCPAD Swimming Resource

    The NCPAD offers excellent information about teaching people with disabilities how to swim. Teaching Adaptive Aquatics is a great resource that includes step-by-step instruction as well as what to expect when you visit a program that focuses on swimming lessons for children who face challenges.

  • Evaluation
  • Setting goals
  • Exercises
  • Tools
    • Toys
    • Flotation devices (as teaching tools, not to replace life jackets)
    • Floor mats
  • Techniques
    • Communication
    • Physical prompts
    • Modeling

    The instructor may begin teaching stroke techniques outside of the water and gradually transition the student into the pool.

    Getting Help

    One of the most important things parents who want to teach their children to swim can do is to get the right support. Discuss your options with the treatment team with the objective of making swimming a goal in the treatment plan. This is a great way to develop a strategy on an individual basis.

    Contact your local YMCA about possible classes for children with disabilities. In many cases, professional swimmers are more than happy to work with a child's treatment team. The therapeutic staff support member working on the case may be able to accompany your child to the classes for additional guidance, and you can help your child by getting water, too.
How to Teach an Autistic Child to Swim