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Swimming lessons for children with autism

To highlight World Autism Awareness Week, the Swimming Times magazine spoke to the team at the Healthy Living Centre, in Staveley, to find out more about their successful swimming lessons for children with autism.

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Swimming lessons for children with autism

A quiet, peaceful pool may not be the image often conjured up when thinking of children’s swimming lessons.

That’s exactly the calm, inviting environment that has been created at a Derbyshire leisure centre, specifically for youngsters with autism.

Despite already striving to provide inclusive classes, the team at the Healthy Living Centre in Staveley recognised that children with an autism spectrum disorder were often still struggling to get what they needed from the lessons.

The team set about six months of research, planning and additional training. They launched specific autism-friendly swimming lessons in January.

The sessions aim to create a welcoming, sensory-friendly environment. They don’t play music, dim the overhead lights, lower the blinds and use the underwater lighting.

Katie White has been a swim teacher at the leisure centre, run by Chesterfield Borough Council, for 10 years.

She explained: “We realised that for children with autism, the Learn to Swim Programme could be a tough environment to cope with. It’s loud and there are a lot of distractions.

“We started by taking away those outside influences and providing as calm an environment as possible. This allows the children to just get in and enjoy the water.

“Our additional training gave us some practical tips and tools such as the importance of being consistent with both our language and the format of the lesson.

“For example, I always end the lesson by telling the children they can have five minutes of free time to play with their choice of equipment, then we do a 10 second countdown, that regular routine then becomes familiar. Visual demonstrations are also really useful as is the flexibility of having two instructors for each group.”

A calm and peaceful pool

The classes are proving to be popular, especially with eight-year-old Jack Drury.

Jack’s mum, Dawn Allen, explained: “I’d wanted Jack to learn to swim for a long time but I just knew the lessons I’d seen weren’t going to be suitable for him. Then we went on a family holiday to Butlin’s and I realised he was quite frightened of the pool.

“That’s when I started looking for appropriate classes and found these at Staveley.

“He’s been to four lessons now and he loves it. He doesn’t want to get out at the end. He’s so enthusiastic, he’s always asking when he can go again.

“I think the main thing is he really likes the instructor but they’ve set the whole environment up to help. They have small groups which means the teachers can get to know their individual needs. The music is turned off and the lights are turned down.

“We’re going back to Butlin’s after this block of lessons and I’m really looking forward to seeing the difference in him. It’s also a big relief to know that he’s working towards being safe in the water.

“We definitely want to carry on with these sessions. I’m also starting to feel a bit better about the thought of taking him to the pool by myself.”

The lessons are very much in demand

Thirteen children are currently enrolled in the 30 minute sessions which follow the Learn to Swim programme from Duckling to Stage 3.

Rebecca Truman, activity development officer for Chesterfield Borough Council, said: “The lessons are very much in demand and we already have a waiting list for the beginner class.

“We’re hoping to expand and to run more sessions including lessons for teenagers and a general autism-friendly swim session.

“We worked closely with local schools and also a swim school who run lessons for children with physical and learning disabilities including autism.

“The teachers also attended a course run by Challenge Consultancy and Training who specialise in teaching children with autism. Every child deserves the chance to learn to swim. We are just making little changes to ensure they can.”

If you would like to find local Swim England lesson providers please head to the Swim England Poolfinder.

Teaching CPD

Are you a swimming teacher interested in finding out more about teaching children with autism?

The Institute of Swimming currently offer a Continual Professional Development seminar on ‘Integrating Autistic Children into Mainstream Swimming Lessons’.

Find out more on the Institute of Swimming website.

This article first appeared in the Swimming Times Mar-Apr 2018 issue.