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Children with autism dive into new adaptive swim program

By Marta Witko

COLUMBIA, Mo. (Nov. 17, 2015) – Occupational therapy students at the University of Missouri School of Health Professions created a specialized swim program for children with autism spectrum disorders to enhance water safety and learn a new form of exercise while making new friends.

Swimming and Water Instruction Modification (SWIM) incorporates autism training strategies for children ages 4 to 18, including two instructors for each child enrolled. The program was initially launched in July and received tremendous positive feedback from the families of the six children who participated. Those children were invited back in October for four additional lessons, and organizers are considering adding more lessons in the spring.

The program is structured so that each group of children will continue the program and build on the skills they’ve learned in previous lessons, similar to that of a traditional swim lesson, but with specialized attention to cater to specific needs. In just four weeks, parents and instructors have already seen a difference.

“The feedback that we’ve gotten from parents is that their child was not successful in a busy environment and would benefit from specialized attention by trained instructors who understand the training strategies for children with autism,” said Brittney Stevenson, an occupational therapist at the Thompson Center who supervised the student swim instructors with colleague Lea Ann Lowery, an associate clinical professor in the MU School of Health Professions.

Each lesson is 30 minutes long and led by six occupational therapy students with three children per lesson.

Parents are encouraged to cheer on and even videotape their child to help track progress and encourage learning through video modeling. The goal is for children to eventually be able to integrate the skills they’ve learned into community swim lessons.

Learning to swim is a critical safety skill for children with autism because they are frequently drawn to bodies of water, Stevenson said. Knowing how to swim can be a lifesaver, particularly if the child encounters water after wandering away from a safe environment, as half of all children with autism do.

In addition to safety, the SWIM program incorporates social skills development into the routine. Lessons begins with a “hello song” personalized with each child’s name that allows them to practice social skills, followed by 20 minutes of personalized instruction on swimming skills and a “goodbye song” as a calming way to signal the end of the lesson.

“Children gain more than swim skills when they participate in SWIM; they will have an increase in self-esteem along with social skills,” said Gabby Heckman, an occupational therapy student who helped launch the program. “Our hope is that these skills will carry over into their daily occupations and help them achieve goals outside of the pool. The opportunities are endless.”