Below is a blog entry submitted by Lorilei Dreibelbis, the Pool Manager at the NOVA 4-H Center, on her insights working with water and youth on the autism spectrum help to shape our swim lesson programming.  


I am the swim instructor at the NOVA 4-H Center.  As many of you know, I am also the parent of [at least] one child on the autism spectrum.  My experiences lend me a unique perspective on teaching, and specifically to teaching swimming.

A major discussion with autism is Sensory Processing/ Sensory Integration.  This is a theory widely used by Occupational Therapists (OT) to identify and treat the behaviors that we find troubling about autism.  The idea is that while we all have senses, the autistic person (for some reason) has extreme senses; they feel too much or too little with every sensory experience.  In essence, they become the visible example of what we all feel – visible because their behavior/ experience is “to the most-est” (or the “least-est”).  The treatment for Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is essentially habituation – we help our children (with the OT) to “get used” to all the things they feel, in increments their body can handle.  Recognizing that each person is different, a specific program of treatment is nearly impossible.  However, we can say, “This is the behavior we want to build” and then move in that direction.

I find this insightful in teaching swimming because, in reality, the aquatic environment is “alien” or “extreme” for all of us – we are not aquatic animals!  The extremity of the environment highlights our sensations, makes them more felt, by comparison, to our lives and activities outside the water.  Moreover, every person’s body swims differently – because we each have distinctive centers of buoyancy and aqua-dynamic “packages”.  Essentially everyone has to teach themselves to swim, because their body is theirs alone – they have to figure out how to “get used to” the sensations of the water and then figure out how to get their body to manipulate the water. 

My key suggestions are:


  •       We fear the unknown, so know it – name what is bothering you (your child). 
  •       Verbalize your sensations, and ask your child to verbalize theirs.


  •       Once you isolate a sensation, see if you feel it anywhere else.
  •       Practice that sensation where ever you can, and often, so that you (or your child) gains a   sense of control over the sensation and over the reaction to it.


  •       Be patient with your child
  •       Be patient with yourself
  •       Science (and experience) shows that learning is best retained when a person “figures it out for themselves”.  You can lead a horse to water…
  •       Come back to the pool (water) as often as you can.  Practice makes…

If you’d like to see more about my insights and philosophies involving the Sensory Experience of Water and some insights and suggestions on how to use that information, feel free to look at this in depth post at Big Dragon Mama’s Chronicles & Treasures:

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