Swimming lessons for kids with Autism, sensory challenges, special abilities



At Chicago Blue Dolphins, we believe every child deserves the opportunity to learn how to swim. That’s why we became certified to teach swimming to children with anxiety, attention difficulties, Autism spectrum disorder, sensory challenges, coordination problems, physical disabilities and more.

Coach Fitz got the idea to work with children with special abilities when his daughter was taking swim lessons with some friends of hers. One of the kids was working with an occupational therapist on some sensory processing issues. This child’s mom looked at our Swim Studio one day, and she thought the space was perfect for children on the autism and sensory spectrums: small pools, warm water, subdued colors, sound treatments, and caring and patient coaches.

After some research, Coach Fitz realized that a sport he’d been doing for as long as he could remember delivers major physical, psychological, and social benefits to children in this demographic. He thought Chicago Blue Dolphins had a unique opportunity to genuinely help improve the lives of children and decided to bring a proven method into our program.

That’s when he found the wonderful Swim Angelfish’s Swim Whisperers program. In February 2015, we brought Co-Founder Cindy Freedman in from Boston to teach the method to our coaching staff. Since then, we’ve taught dozens of children basic swim skills, water safety and confidence in the water.

What difference can our swimming lessons make for a child with Autism?

“As a Mom who doesn’t know how to swim, I was very concerned and scared,” says Tareema, who brought her son, Luke, to Chicago Blue Dolphins. “But as a Mom of a child who is on the spectrum, I was desperate for anything that would allow us to have better days.”

We talked with Tareema after Luke had been in swim lessons for about one year. What improvements has she seen? “He needs minimal sensory input,” she says. “He’s able to regulate his own body, which means transitioning from cleaning up toys to bathtime or leaving the house to go to the store is not a fight. Cutting his nails…He just allows me to cut his nails. He holds his hand out, and we count each nail as we cut, without having to literally hold him down. Cutting his hair, brushing his hair, brushing his teeth. Overall, the sensory part of it for everyday activities that a lot of people take for granted, it has been amazing. And then just having him calm so we can have those moments where he can learn and understand and I can expand his mind.”

How do we tailor our swim lessons for kids with Autism?

First, as you can see in the video, Coach Maureen spins and rolls Luke to wake up his vestibular system and proprioceptive system. This also sets a base for back swimming and rolling for air.

Next, Coach Maureen takes Luke through a series of warm-up activities:

  1. Blast Offs: These are a fun way to get Luke to start swimming on his back. Coach Maureen is able to get his head back in the water and gets him to start kicking.
  2. Bobs: These are a time-tested way to get children comfortable going under water. In addition, the water pressure at the bottom of the pool acts like a “big hug” for Luke, releasing dopamine and having a calming effect on him. Kids love bobs!
  3. Guided Swims: Coach Maureen helps Luke learn to streamline, or level, his body in the water. A streamlined body moves more easily through the water, and it positions Luke look better for adding arm and leg movements.

Now, with his mind and body warmed up, Coach Maureen moves Luke into more traditional swim instruction, such as the elementary backstroke, working on coordinating the arm motion with the body position.

Later in the lesson, Luke will put on goggles for the first time. The video captures this special moment, showing how calm and confident Luke is with the goggles and assistance from his Mom and Coach Maureen.

With the goggles on, he’ll begin to dive for rings. This is another favorite for all kids, and it offers similar benefits to the bobs because he’s going to the bottom of the pool.

The lesson wraps up with dolphin dives from the platform at the side of the pool. All the heavy work from climbing onto the platform keeps Luke alert and focused.

Do we offer group classes or private lessons for kids with special abilities?

Although our goal is to transition each child into a group swimming class, our swim instruction for children with special abilities typically begins with 25-minute private lessons. During these one-on-one sessions, we can identify any roadblocks, work through them and begin to develop core swimming skills.

We will then progress into semi-private lessons and, ultimately, into a group class.
Details on tuition are available on our Special Abilities Swim Lessons page.

Parting thoughts from Tareema

In the time Luke’s Mom has been bringing him to Chicago Blue Dolphins, what do you think she has like the most? “The acceptance, the understanding and no judgment,” she says. “‘Whatever you need, tell us.’ The first two months, we literally would walk in, he would scream, and we would walk out and say goodbye. And no one got frustrated, no one judged, staff and parents alike. Everybody was just so welcoming. And the coaches getting to know Luke, who he is and how to respond to him. The fact that every single coach here knows who Luke is and responds to him and talks to him. It’s been amazing to allow my child to learn how to swim, to gain the sensory benefits, and to feel comfortable and not feel out of place in case he has a meltdown.”

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