Teaching Your Special Needs Child to Swim

I’ve heard it said that it’s best to get your child into swimming lessons as early as possible. In fact, age one was suggested within our mother’s group. As it turned out, this was poor advice within our mostly dysfunctional (obsessed with appearances) group.

Initial Problems with Learning to Swim
I’m not saying that the time was entirely wasted, certainly the commitment to one hour per week of holding the baby and learning silly songs did wonders for me as a new parent. The swimming lessons however did nothing for my son. It’s not like we didn’t give it a good go either. We continued the lessons for nearly three years until he was well and truly ready to start swimming on his own–and that was when the problems really started.

First, there was massive separation anxiety from my son who had never been in the water with anyone except me. Then there was the fact that there was a new teacher involved. At the time, we didn’t know about Asperger’s syndrome or the well documented “resistance to change”.

It didn’t help that he was expected to wait on the step with other children while the instructor took it in turns with his peers. His ADHD meant that being still was usually not an option and his lack of social skills didn’t help him to relate to the other kids on the step either.

Furthermore, the environment presented a huge variety of sensory challenges and as it turned out, his ears were particularly susceptible to infection which meant that he missed many more classes than he attended.

The final problem was that he began to develop first an interest, then a fear of the pool’s filtration outlets. The teacher had no time to spend on the problem and after a few weeks of him refusing to get into the water at all, we dropped out.

Trying Again
Having gone through a similar tough experience with nappies (diapers), my wife and I decided to put swimming lessons off for a year. It also helped that our son had been fitted with grommets (ear tubes) to control his ear infections and he wasn’t allowed to get them wet.  When we returned to the water, we allowed him the freedom to wade in pools and to ride on his “noodle” but didn’t try to teach him anything despite strong temptation.

After a year, we took him to an entirely different swimming centre. It still brought back strong memories for him but I think the change helped. We also engaged a “special needs friendly” swimming instructor.

It was hard to see where our money was going at first, because the instructor spent a few lessons simply talking to him from the side of the pool and then moved on to touring the pool and pointing out features. She knew what she was doing though, and after a while he was able to learn to swim without spending every moment thinking about filters–though he was still wary of them.

We continued the lessons for a couple of years until we once again hit an impasse. It was always “two steps forward and one step back”.  It didn’t help that our instructor moved and we had another take her place–a male this time.  After some difficult lessons, particularly watching the instructor trying (and failing) to establish trust with our son, we decided that we were running the risk of upsetting our son’s swimming confidence.  We felt that we’d learned enough about special needs swimming and motivation to continue the lessons ourselves and pulled him out of the classes.

The Third Attempt
Once again, we had a little break and then we started supervising “fun” in the pool instead of swimming. He quickly learned that there was more fun to be had if you could use more of the pool.

Eventually we put a pool in our own backyard and the rest, as they say, is history.

Lessons Learned
Swimming is a critical and life-saving skill which your children need to master. Unfortunately there are many barriers to learning in special needs children.

  • There’s no pressing need to get your child into the water early.  Good progress in early lessons won’t necessarily mean that your child will learn to swim any sooner than their peers.
  • If you go down the wrong path, stop and wait 6-12 months before resuming. No child will learn under traumatic conditions.  If things haven’t gone too far, then a shorter break may be OK.
  • Get a qualified special needs instructor and make sure that the lessons are one-on-one.
  • Don’t be afraid to spend a good deal of time dealing with the sensory issues instead of actually swimming. It seems wasteful, but it isn’t. Nothing which helps your child to relax in the water is wasteful.
  • Keep a close eye out for sensory difficulties and deal with them before they become an issue.
  • If possible, use local facilities for fun (or put in a pool of your own).

Today, my son still isn’t the strongest swimmer but he knows enough to keep afloat and to build on that knowledge in his school and scouting activities.  The water is no longer a threat and in a country like Australia which averages above 300 water-related deaths per year, that’s really the most important thing.

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About Gavin Bollard

Gavin is a dad who discovered that his own differences were due to Aspergers while researching his son’s diagnosis. His blog, Life with Aspergers, delves into the day-to-day details of Asperger's and related conditions while maintaining a focus on the positives.




  • http://www.facebook.com/JudyEndow Judy Endow

    Great practical advice from a parent who has been through the challenge of teaching his special needs child to swim. Lots of patience and perseverance!

  • Jeff B

    Is it of any significance that your son had ear infections and ear tubes? I also had great difficultly learning to swim, had mulitple ear infections and tubes put in, and didn’t learn to swim from conventional teaching. I finally learned to swim by watching my brother swim in a pool while visiting friends of our family. Before that, I had been to half a dozen swimming classes (both private and public) without any results, other than compounding my dislike in getting my head wet! I’m now in my forties and am not only able to swim, but I really love water now (as long as it’s warm enough!).

  • http://www.facebook.com/gbollard Gavin Bollard

    Jeff,
    The ear tubes are very significant. It turns out that the ear and nose connectivity is more tangled in some individuals than in others. In my son’s case (and mine), they were fairly straight so it’s a genetic thing.

    I had a lot of ear infections as a child and lost my hearing as a result.

    Being prone to ear infections means that children are less likely to enjoy the water and more likely to have days when the water is “off limits” to them. I’d say that ear infections would make a child far less willing to put their head underwater.