Children with autism are up to 160 times more likely to drown than neurotypical children. They’re more prone to wandering or running away from adult supervision, so they have more chances to run across (and fall into) bodies of water like pools and ponds that they’re not supposed to be around. And, in some cases, they may have a harder time learning to swim than neurotypical children because of sensory issues and learning difficulties, leaving them helpless should they ever end up in the water without supervision.
The latter was the case for 9-year-old Zeke Harvey, whose parents worried when the first several swimming classes they tried failed to teach Zeke how to swim or make him more comfortable with water.
For Zeke, who lives in Sydney, Australia, the sound of waves and the glaring sunlight often present at beaches were sources of sensory overload that caused him to have meltdowns. He wanted nothing to do with swimming and wasn’t getting anywhere with learning to swim or learning water safety, even after trying seven different swimming classes.
“It was like herding cats,” says Zeke’s mother, Sarah Harvey. “It wasn’t even a lesson, it was just chasing him.”
The Harvey family finally decided to sign Zeke up for a program created by Autism Swim, the only certifying body for autism and swimming in the world. The program, run by behavioral specialist Erika Gleeson, specializes in teaching people with autism how to swim and has a focus on water safety, both in and out of the water.
“Autism is a whole different world to regular swimming teaching,” says Zeke’s father, Mike Harvey. “Most of the time, you can’t demonstrate and expect a child to be able to follow that instruction, because there are so many different things that are involved with it. We’ve talked about the sensory side of things, we’ve got the ability to actually know you’re own body, and in autism that’s often a big gap between what you want your body to do and what it actually does.”
Gleeson is even working on a water-safety app that will teach kids situation-specific skills through virtual characters’ actions. Many children with autism respond well to education delivered via a device, and the app takes away any teaching variations that may bother people with autism who don’t respond well to change.
Thanks to Autism Swim, Zeke now can’t get enough of the water! His family says he doesn’t even seem like the same child anymore.
Zeke especially loves his teacher, Nat, who he says has given him surprises and fun things along the way. “She’s taught me how to rocket-boost, splash, jump into the pool, and all that stuff,” he says.
Next, Zeke hopes to learn to tread water. For him, this may be just a fun new skill to have. But for his family, it’s an added measure of safety, should Zeke ever accidentally fall into water and not be able to get out right away.
The Harveys’ youngest son, Spencer, has also been diagnosed with autism. Although it presents itself very differently from Zeke’s and he’s non-verbal and acts very distant, the family’s newfound knowledge of swimming lessons for children with autism gives them hope for the future safety of both their sons.
Thank you, Autism Swim, for recognizing that learning differently doesn’t mean that kids with autism learn “wrong” or that they can’t learn at all. Your dedication to teaching people with autism swimming and water safety will likely save many lives and put so many parents’ minds at ease!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?