Autism & Swimming: 10 Things Every Parent Oughta Know

By Andrew & Mary of Sensory Swim®

As the saying goes, “Showing up is half the battle”. This is true for work, for events & for swimming lessons. At Sensory Swim® we know that if a parent of an autistic child wants their child to learn how to swim, showing up is definitely half the battle.

In some cases, especially for children who have an extreme fear of the water, this may be more like 80%. This skill of learning to swim may also save that child’s life one day. But let's not waste any more time pointing out the obvious.

When it comes to supporting a child on the autism spectrum who is learning to swim, a parent must get that child to come to the lesson. We have come across parents who have signed their child up for swim lessons & cancelled without even showing up.

They explain that they didn't show up because their six year old son refused to put on his bathing suit. And we didn't want to make him do something he didn't feel like doing.

Triumph The Official Service Dog Of Sensory Swim

Part of the responsibility of being a parent of a child with or without autism is to take control of certain situations & push your child so that obstacles can be overcome & goals reached.

It is normal for children to challenge authority & test their independence & decision-making skills, but the parent must have the final say.

Case Study: Max Max

You would be amazed at how many kids come to us with mad verbal skills. They challenge you at home and they challenge us when they are at our school. But not for long...

Let's use Max for an example. Max was terrified of water to the point that he refused to put on a bathing suit. Max has high functioning autism & is extremely aware of everything.

He knew that putting on a bathing suit meant he had to get into the water. Which he was terrified of. And he figured out that every time his mom couldn't get a bathing suit on him, he wouldn’t have to attend lessons.

The solution?

Instead of having Max fight at home about putting on swim trunks, we had Mom bring him to the school. Andrew met Max at the door & asked Max if he was going to put on his trunks. Max said No.

Andrew picked Max up & took him into the pool. And Max quickly realized who was in control.

The following week Max had no problem putting on his trunks all by himself & was actually eager to get back into the pool. Just remember when it comes down to it, your goal is never to hurt your child, It's always to help your child.Fear will never ever go away if you don't face it head on. And the more you avoid the fear - the bigger the issue becomes.

A child will flat out

  1. refuse to go places they don't like
  2. refuse to eat their vegetable
  3. refuse to go to be at a decent hour

The sad part is that some parents will give in to what that child wants, even if it is not best for their child because they don’t want to deal with the opposition.

Kids all throw tantrums. But in the case of dealing with an autistic child & their tantrums they tend to be more intense & last longer.

Also, in some cases, a child may try to hurt themselves or threaten to, so that the parent will give in. It would be so much easier as a parent to just give in right?


Oh sure, for the short term, it will be easier, but in the long term & bigger picture of things, your child will then learn & become quite proficient at the art of manipulation.

Remember you are the parent! If your child was about to run into a street, of course you would stop them.

You’d take control. This is part of your responsibility. 

Case Study: BJ The Charger

Over the past decade we have taught thousands of kids to kick fear in the face & helped them to become swimming machines. But over the years we have also had hundreds of students who never got that same chance.

For example..... In 2013 during Sensory Swim's Purpose Passion Progress Tour we had a little boy name BJ.

BJ was four years old , autistic & was non verbal. During his first few lessons we saw that BJ was a charger. A charger is a child that keeps on walking.

BJ would walk into the pool & keep walking. He would walk right into water over his head & then we would have to pick him up.

Keep in mind that we are always within arms reach of our students. We would then take him back and he would do the same process over & over again.

Our goal was to get him to monkey crawl along the wall from start to finish. And by BJ's third lesson he had conquered that.

The next time we saw BJ a week later, his mother was in tears. She gave us a huge hug and thanked us for everything we had done.

She explained that she dropped BJ off at her moms house. BJ somehow managed to open a screen door in the back of the house. It was hours before Grandma even noticed BJ was gone.

After hours of searching they found him less than a mile down the road. Clinging to the side of a inground pool in someone's back yard.

The EMT's on the scene estimated that due to his body temperature , he had been clinging to the side of the pool for hours.

Meanwhile BJ's mom is telling us this story & we are weeping our eyes out. Because this is exactly why we do what we do.

Mary, Shannon, Andrew & Michael at Sensory Swim In Bel Air, Maryland

You might be thinking to yourself this was awesome news. And we agree it is.

But wait for it.... Then she drops the bomb. She says " Andrew & Mary, now that I know my child knows what to do in a pool, we don't need lessons anymore". '

Truth Sauce: Even Swim Instructors Can Drown

Look ... we are the first ones to tell you that even our special needs swim lessons won't make your child immune to drowning. Anybody who guarantees that they can make sure your child will never drown is full of it. Run away fast!

It just doesn't work that way. None of it works that way.

There are too many unknown factors about elopement. When it comes to the life saving skill of learning how to swim, parents must be the biggest supporters of their children.

The saying, “Ignore it and it will go away” won’t work when it comes to your child learning to swim. Water is everywhere, not just swimming pools in the summertime, or beaches, but there are lakes, ponds, etc., & the temptation is all around.

Even if your child is scared of the water & swimming, they must encounter the day-to-day living that involves water – taking a shower or bath, washing their hair & face, accidentally having something spill on them, rain, etc.

You get the picture. Water must be dealt with on a daily basis. So autism parents unite!

You can be the biggest cheerleader & supporter to help them overcome this fear, or in some cases, great attraction to water. By making sure your child knows how to swim & stay alive & maybe even have fun in the water, life will be much easier for you & your choices of vacation spots will expand.

Katelyn, Mary, Andrew & Nico at Sensory Swim In Sterling, Virginia

With that being said here are

How To Teach A Child With Autism How To Swim: 10 Things Every Parent Oughta Know

It’s pretty easy to support your autistic child to become a swimming machine!. 

Number One... Private Lessons Only

Make sure your child is going to have one-on-one instruction with a teacher who has experience in teaching children with autism how to swim.

In the classroom, certain teachers may have experience & be great with teaching children, but put them in a pool setting, & going by the book does not work most of time.

If a child is deaf & understands sign language, make sure their teacher can sign to them & make them feel comfortable about communicating. The same is true for children who stem, or yell in delight.

Don't try to stop your child from doing this. Let them have a hand flapping good time.

Some may act out with physical aggression & it’s pertinent that their teacher can handle that behavior in an appropriate & safe way for both them & your child.

When searching for a teacher for your child look for someone with a lot of heart & empathy.

Number Two... Get Them There

Get your child there. Yep, that’s more than half the battle for some, seems like it shouldn’t even be an issue.

As stated before, we have seen too many parents give up before the challenge has begun.

Travis at Sensory Swim in Sterling, Virginia

Number Three... Stay

Stay with your child during their lesson, not in the pool with them or even on deck, but at least nearby, in case they have to use the bathroom, have a bloody nose, need a quick hug etc.

This is just letting your child know that you are in the area & that you care.

Number Four... Give Them Time

Make sure that your child is bonding with their swim instructor. It's extremely important that your child have the same teacher each time, so they can develop a rapport & trust with them.

Some children have a harder time with trust & attachment to others, so it is real important when it comes to something as important as swim lessons that this takes place.

Consistency is key.

There is actually a proven scientific formula that we use here at Sensory Swim® that guarantees that our student bonds with us from the very first class.

We guarantee your instructor does not know this formula. Give your instructor more than one session to bond with your kid. If you’re jumping instructor to instructor you are failing your child in more ways than you can count.

Number Five... Have Your Child's Back 

If you see your child being yelled at, handled roughly or anything that concerns you talk to your child’s teacher & confront them on the situation. Forget going to the front desk or talking to the manager.

Jackson at Sensory Swim in Springfield, Virginia

Go straight to the pool deck and put a spotlight on that instructor. You will be doing everybody a favor when you do. There is nothing more discouraging for any child autistic or not who is learning to swim then to be put down in a condescending way, or mistreated.

There is nothing more frustrating for a parent then to put out money for swim lessons & have their child in tears from being yelled at or handled in an inappropriate manner. Getting that child out the door for his or her next swim lesson will be a joy. (she said sarcastically).

A quick tip. If you happen to be at a swim school with a viewing area, pay extra attention to the teacher when they turn their back to you. This is the time when the instructor is most likely berating your child.

If they come out crying and say that Mr. Magoo was mean to them... they are 100% correct. When the instructor turns their back on you, they are also turning their back on your child.

Number Six... Don't Force It 

An autistic child or any child for that matter should never ever be forced to put their face in the water before they are ready. Force anything on these kids and it will take them way back in their progress.

A swim teacher who has experience in dealing with children with this fear issue, must have instinct and knowledge of when to push & when to back off from certain goals.

Remember that if your child had a bad experience with one instructor, the new instructor has that much more to deal with. They have to fix a lot of what the last instructor screwed up. Give them time.

Number Seven... This Ain't No Social Club

Oliver at Sensory Swim in Sterling, Virginia

If at the lesson you notice your child’s teacher caring more about talking to other instructors & focusing less on your child, this most likely won't be the right teacher for your child.

In all swim classes, a teacher should be focused on your child at all times. It is too big a risk for the teacher to be distracted either by other children or adults in the pool & something unfortunate to happen to your child.

Number Eight... Avoid Group Lessons Or Else

Remember the saying, “You got what you paid for”? Wow!

How true when it comes to swim lessons of any sort. A discount on the skill that may save your child’s life?

Maybe a great discount at a store, but not in this area No way Jose. Your child is too precious.

There is no price that can be put on a child’s life. Non verbal autistic children should never ever be in a group class.

Doing that is like putting four children in a lifeboat built for one. Shouldn’t be done. Too risky.

Number Nine... Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

Children learn any skill faster when they are having fun. So your child should be enjoying their swim lessons & looking forward to the next one.

When the lessons are extremely enjoyable they learn quicker & life will also be more enjoyable for you.

If a swim instructor is working with your child & will not move them on to the next level or skill because they were not able to accomplish a certain one, your child & you will get discouraged.

Andrew Throwing Nico At Sensory Swim In Sterling, Virginia

Only experienced swim instructors who have been working with autistic children for a hot minute will understand how important it is to be creative to assist your child in reaching small goals.

These small goals then add up & turn into bigger ones & voila – your child is swimming & enjoying themselves.

If your child is forced to do the same thing over & over & in the same way and cannot seem to master that skill, discouragement is going to be swimming up on them very quickly.

It’s kind of like the saying, “When you do the same thing over & over, expecting different results, that’s insanity”. Sometimes your child just needs a diversion from one skill to another (one he or she can accomplish) to go back & accomplish the first one.

Small wins always lead to huge progress.

Number Ten... You've Made The Cheerleading Team!

Be the cheerleader & let the teacher be the teacher!

You are the supporter, the best friend forever, the cheerleader. Don’t drill your child about their lesson afterward or build up their anxiety before their lesson.

A child on the spectrum processes information differently. Just let the lesson take place & each time your child will do their best & accomplish what they are able to accomplish.

Be happy with that. You don’t need to add to your job. If in fact, your child’s instructor asks you to help & work on some issue at home, then by all means dive in.

Also, if your child’s medications are changed, or something is different at home that may affect their swim lessons, don't be afraid to mention it to your child's instructor.

Theodore At Sensory Swim In Bel Air, Maryland

Open communication should always be encouraged! That’s it, parents, I mean cheerleaders. You can be your child’s best asset when it comes to learning to swim, just by being you & showing up. (Remember to bring them, of course).



PS. Congrats for discovering Autism & Swimming: 10 Things Every Parent Oughta Know.  Click the pic below to check out the official I Love Someone With Autism bracelet