Swimming Lessons: a Necessary Evil for Autistic People

Swimming lessons can be a really touchy subject for people on the spectrum.  Some of us love the water, but a lot of us hate it, especially if it gets in our faces.  Getting autistic kids into a pool might be an epic struggle that includes tears, fighting, and screaming – or that might only happen when you try to get them out.  Either way, swimming is an important safety skill, so swimming lessons for autistic children are necessary. 

It’s very common for autistic people to have problems learning to swim.  It’s so common, in fact, that it was one of my reasons for getting diagnosed.  Beyond the sensory issues with water, we may have difficulties with motor planning or coordinating our limbs (dyspraxia or dyspraxic traits).  Trying to learn to swim can be very frustrating when you can’t control your body reliably and it can take so much mental energy that you end up exhausted and frazzled.  Kids may also be scared of the water or putting their head under or some other aspect of swimming (maybe even the teacher), which could create another obstacle.  With all this going on, autistic children may not progress in skills along with their peers, they may put up a fight about going to lessons, or even have meltdowns.  I can totally understand why a parent might give up rather than choose to die on this particular watery hill.  But all that will get you is me: a 30-something adult who won’t go near a pool, river, or lake because I can’t swim and I know I’m a safety risk.   

If you have an autistic child:

Start your child in normal group swimming lessons at your community pool or YMCA as early as you think they can handle it.  Unless their hatred of water is so bad you can’t even bathe them without a struggle, there’s no reason they shouldn’t start with other kids their age when they’re small.  Let the instructor know ahead of time that your child is autistic and may need extra help.  If they’ll allow you to stay for the first couple of lessons, do so.  Keep in close contact with the instructor about how your child reacts, any problems they have, and how they’re progressing compared to the other kids in the group.  As long as your child continues building skills on par with their peers, they can go on with normal group swimming lessons every summer.       

If group lessons are overstimulating or your child really hates water, look into individual lessons that will let your kid progress at their own pace in a quieter environment.  This is also a good option if your child started in group lessons but stopped progressing after a couple of years.  Switching to individual lessons can help the instructor identify where they’re having trouble and also avoid the social stigma of being held back with a younger class. 

Don’t. Give. Up.  If you do whatever it takes to get your autistic child to the point that they can swim enough to keep them safe around water, you will have done your duty in this aspect of parenting.  It might take years, it might take specialized instruction, but it’s important to keep your child safe for life.   

If you’re an autistic adult who can’t swim:

It’s not too late! 

First, take some time and some deep breaths and let go of any shame, guilt, insecurity, etc. about it, especially if you had swimming lessons as a kid.  There are lots of adults who never learned to swim, on the spectrum and off.  There is nothing wrong with you and you are not a freak, even if people look at you like one when you explain why you don’t go near water.  Not being able to swim is no more shameful than not being able to roller skate.  Getting over the embarrassment can take some time – I’ve been on this step myself for a couple of years – but you have to start here. 

Next, check with your local community pool or YMCA about adult swimming lessons.  You might find a group class, but more likely they’ll offer individual lessons.  Don’t write off a group class just out of embarrassment – remember, all the other adults there can’t swim, either.  It might be ok.  Whether you choose individual or group swimming lessons, you’ll want to explain any specific issues you have to your instructor.  Let them know if you can’t stand water in your face, if you have major coordination problems, if you’re afraid of water, etc.  If you’re really concerned about getting a teacher that will be gentle with you, tell the pool or YMCA up front that you need a swimming instructor for an autistic adult.  They should know of local people who address special needs. 

Go. To. Your. Lessons.  It may not be fun, it might even be really scary, but you need to do it.  As you build your skills, you’ll gain confidence, and, more importantly, you’ll be able to keep yourself safe around water.  If people invite you to the pool, the lake, or the beach, you’ll be able to accept without fear or shame.  You might even discover that you love being in the water once you’re in control! 

Swimming lessons are really not optional for anyone, and they’re worth the hassle to keep autistic kids and adults safe.  There are more options than ever for individualized teaching; all it requires is that you keep attending the lessons and don’t give up! 

Swimming lessons are a necessary evil for autistic children and adults

I had swimming lessons for several years as a child, but I never actually learned to swim.  Did you have a similar experience?  Have you tried learning to swim as an adult?  What did you (do you) struggle with most when it comes to swimming?

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