Swimming Teaching Tips 11 minute read

Teaching Swimming to Children with Autism

Georgina Martindale
9th September 2020

Welcome back!

Hello SwimPals, and welcome back to our blog series! My name is Georgie, expert goggle-tightener, enthusiastic bubble-blower, specialist swimming-cap-putter-onner and most importantly . . . long-term swimming teacher.

I will be posting a weekly blog right here on the SwimPal website to share with you:

So, without further ado, let’s dive into this week’s topic (as always, apologies – terrible swimming puns are an occupational hazard) . . .


Teaching Swimming to Children with Autism

Most of us have heard of autism and a lot of us will have met a person who has autism (even if we weren’t aware of it at the time).

But how many of us actually know what autism is?

In recent years, autism has (rightly so) received increased attention in mainstream media. Be that in TV shows like ‘The A Word’ or autism awareness campaigns created by the National Autistic Society.

This has been fantastic and has vastly increased the general public’s awareness and understanding of autism.

However, it is also important to highlight that autism is often shrouded in many common misconceptions.

In this blog, I hope to debunk some of these common misconceptions, explore the true characteristics of autism and share with you my experiences of teaching swimming to young people with autism.


The Terminology

Let’s start with the terminology because there’s a lot of variation out there and it can be confusing and, at times, overwhelming.

Autism

Autistic

Autist

High Functioning Autism

Asperger’s Syndrome

ASD / Autism Spectrum Disorder / Autistic Spectrum Disorder

ASC / Autism Spectrum Condition / Autistic Spectrum Condition

“On the spectrum.”

You may have heard of one of these terms or all of them. I won’t take the time to explain the specific meaning and origin of each one but it’s important to understand that autism is a spectrum condition.

Each of the terms listed above could be used to describe an individual who is on the autism spectrum.

So, let’s say you’ve just been informed that a new swimmer is joining your class and they have autism. The prospect of having a conversation with their parents or carers about the swimmer’s needs can be daunting.

How do I start a conversation about autism? I don’t want to say the wrong thing. Will they be comfortable talking to me about their child’s diagnosis?

These are all very valid thoughts and feelings to have and when you’ve seen how many different ways there are to refer to autism, it’s understandable if you’re a little bit worried about saying the wrong thing, however . . .

Autism should not be a taboo subject.

Do not be afraid of raising the subject of autism with your swimmer’s parents or carers. Autism is not something to shy away from and it is certainly not something a person should be embarrassed or ashamed of.

In my experience, parents and carers have always really appreciated it when I have taken the time to have a conversation with them about their child’s needs and to discuss the ways in which I can best support them in my swimming lessons.

When it comes to using the “correct” diagnostic labels and terminology regarding autism, my advice would be to follow the individual’s (or their family member’s) lead.

There is no “one size fits all”. Diagnostic labels are personal and specific to each individual.

Some individuals prefer to be referred to as “an autistic person” or “an autist” and others don’t feel comfortable with this terminology and, instead, like to be referred to as “a person with ASD”.

That being said, don’t get too bogged down in worrying about what terminology to use.

It’s good to have an awareness of some of the other terms used to refer to ASD but if you simply use the term “autism”, you can’t go far wrong.

As long as you are open, attentive and respectful, you will have a meaningful conversation which only increases your awareness and improves the quality of individualised support you are able to provide to your swimmer.


What is Autism?

So, that’s the terminology sorted (hopefully). Now let’s take a look at the condition itself and what it might mean for a young person who has autism.

The UK’s National Autistic Society defines autism as . . .

“A lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.” 

National Autistic Society, UK

We’ve mentioned previously that autism is a spectrum condition but what exactly does this mean?

Well, it means that people with autism can have varying support needs.

The spectrum is very broad and very varied. No two people with autism are alike and each person’s autism affects their day-to-day life in different ways.

Some people with autism will have high support needs, which may mean that they require full-time care and support. Some people may need a bit of support with day-to-day activities, while others live fully independent lives.

It is also important to mention that the autism spectrum isn’t linear and many people talk about the ‘spikey profile.’ This means a person with autism could be a leading expert in nuclear physics but has difficulties remembering to brush their teeth or clean their clothes. 

“With the right support in place, all people with autism should be able to live the life they choose.” 

National Autistic Society, UK

For more information about autism, I highly recommend visiting the National Autistic Society’s website. They have lots of really useful advice and guidance, including a beautifully illustrated informational video.


Let’s do some myth-busting!

As mentioned previously, there are a lot of common misconceptions that surround autism. In this section, we’re going to take a closer look at some of these myths . . . but pay close attention! I’ve also thrown in some facts.

See if any of these myths or facts surprise you or challenge what you previously thought about autism.

People “grow out” of autism.

Myth

Autism is a lifelong condition. Autistic children become autistic adults. However, with a proper diagnosis and the implementation of the correct support, a child with autism who struggles (for example) with meeting new people may grow into an adult who finds this less challenging.

Autism affects both boys and girls.

Fact

There is a common misconception that autism is simply a male condition. This is false. Both males and females can have autism, however, studies have shown that boys are almost 5 times more likely to receive a diagnosis of autism than girls. There are a number of theories surrounding this observation, chiefly that girls with autism often remain undiagnosed due to their ability to “mask” autistic characteristics.

Some people with autism don’t speak.

Fact

Some people with autism are non-verbal, or selectively mute, meaning that they do not speak. They may instead use alternative forms of communication, such as social stories, communication boards, visual symbols and sign language.

Autism is a mental health problem.

Myth

Autism is a developmental disability. It’s a difference in how the brain works. People with autism can have good mental health, or experience mental health difficulties, just like anyone else. Although autism itself is not a mental health problem, some of the challenges that people with autism face can make it more likely for them to struggle with their mental health. The National Autistic Society reports that over one-third of people with autism have serious mental health issues.

All people with autism are geniuses.

Myth

Some people with autism have ‘savant’ abilities, such as an extraordinary memory or an amazing aptitude for mental arithmetic, however, such abilities are very rare. One-third of all people diagnosed with autism also have a learning disability. Others have an IQ in the average to above-average range.

Everyone is a bit autistic.

Myth

Whilst a person may recognise some autistic traits or behaviours in themselves or people they know, to be diagnosed with autism, a person must consistently display behaviours across all the different areas of the condition. Just having a fondness for routines, a good memory or being shy doesn’t make a person ‘a bit autistic’.


Teaching Swimming

So, now we have a better understanding of what autism is, let’s explore what this might mean for a swimmer with autism.

Below, I have created a table outlining some of the considerations you might want to think about if a young person with autism is joining your class. I have then included some advice stemming from my own experiences of teaching young swimmers who have autism.

ConsiderationsMy Experience
Your swimmer may have significant social communication and social interaction challenges.
I have taught swimmers who have had difficulties with interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice. In turn, this has sometimes made it challenging for them to understand my verbal instructions and to form friendships with other swimmers in the class. I have found that providing lots of visual demonstrations, allowing my swimmers more processing time after I have given a verbal instruction or asked a question and avoiding the overuse of metaphors and abstract concepts has supported my swimmers in their understanding of tasks within the lesson. I have also found that teacher-led games can be a great way to encourage friendships within the class and to ensure every swimmer is being included in “fun time”.
Your swimmer may have repetitive and restrictive behaviour.
I have taught swimmers for whom change to routine has been very distressing. This could include attending swimming for the first time, the absence of a fellow classmate or a disruption to the usual flow of the lesson (e.g. not having time for a game at the end). When it comes to attending swimming for the first time, I have found that some swimmers need a lesson just to visit the pool and the changing rooms and get to know the new environment. They might want to observe for their first lesson or sit on the poolside gently splashing the water and playing with some of the toys. When it comes to the lessons themselves, obviously the content will change from week-to-week but having a set structure or routine that you follow every lesson can really help a swimmer with autism to feel at ease. For example, your swimmers could start every lesson by choosing their favourite coloured armbands and sitting in their designated spots before entering the water. You could start each lesson with a warm-up activity and end each lesson with a game. If there are going to be any changes to the usual format of the lesson (e.g. a different teacher or assistant, a new swimmer in the class, the lesson taking place in a different part of the swimming pool, etc.), to the best of your ability, try to inform your swimmer and their parents or carers beforehand so that they might introduce the change before the lesson.
Your swimmer may have over- or under-sensitivity to sensory stimuli.
I have taught swimmers who have had over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours or temperatures and this has made the environment of a swimming pool quite overwhelming. For example, they have found the background noise and echo created in a swimming pool, which other people ignore or block out, unbearably loud or distracting. This can cause anxiety or even physical pain. It is difficult to modify the environment in a swimming pool, for example, some children with autism do not like the smell of chlorine but there is not much that can be done about this with regards to the pool itself. It is good, however, to have an awareness of your swimmers particular sensitivities and to reduce triggers and discomfort where you can. Are you able to ask parents and carers to keep noise to a minimum on the poolside? Are you able to adjust the lighting in the swimming pool (whilst maintaining a safe level of visibility)? Are you able to avoid physical contact with your swimmer throughout the lesson (e.g. instead of holding their hands for assistance, allow them to hold onto a float)?
Your swimmer may have highly focused interests and hobbies.
I have taught swimmers who have had very particular interests from rockets and outer-space to horses and cats. Knowing your swimmer’s special interests can aid you in providing a fun and engaging lesson. If your swimmer does have a special interest, it’s likely you will find out about it pretty quickly as people with autism often enjoy sharing their knowledge and particular interest with others. I have had great fun incorporating my swimmers’ hobbies and interests into my swimming lessons. For example, riding horses in a race across the swimming pool and pretending to be rockets blasting off and seeing who can land on the moon. It’s a great opportunity to get creative and it will mean the world to your swimmers.
Your swimmer may experience extreme anxiety or meltdowns and shutdowns.
I have taught swimmers who have struggled with anxiety and experienced meltdowns and/or shutdowns. Similarly to over- and under-sensitivity, having an awareness of your swimmer’s difficulties and any particular triggers can help you to create a calm and supportive environment. It can be really useful to have a conversation with your swimmer’s parents or carers about your swimmer’s difficulties and needs. It may be that they have strategies or a specific action plan if their child is experiencing a meltdown or shutdown. It could be useful to have a plan in place with them of steps you will take if your swimmer begins to experience a meltdown or shutdown. If you have a teaching assistant, it is also important that they are aware of the strategies you have in place. When you have a swimmer in your class who has additional needs, having a teaching assistant who can provide one-to-one support to that young person as you teach the class as a whole can be invaluable. In the past, I have also provided one-to-one swimming lessons for swimmers with autism as this has catered well to their particular needs. Obviously, the support of an assistant and the ability to provide a one-to-one lesson are subject to your swim school’s provisions and resources but they are definitely worthwhile considerations if you do have the scope to offer them.

Above all else, my main piece of advice would be “get to know them as an individual”. As I mentioned before, no two people with autism are alike.

Get to know your little swimmer. What are their likes and dislikes? What do they find challenging? What are their strengths?

The better you get to know them, the easier it will be for you to create a fun and engaging lesson and an environment specifically catered to support their needs, allowing your swimmer to reach their full potential.


Autism

The world from a different perspective.


What are your thoughts?

Did any of the facts or myths surprise you?

Do you have experience of teaching swimming to children with autism?

We’d love to hear from you!

Please share your opinions, personal experiences and advice in the comments below . . . and if you have any questions or if there are any topics you’d like us to cover in future blogs, let us know.


Georgina Martindale
Georgina Martindale

Georgina is a Swim England and STA qualified swimming teacher and an RLSS and ILFS qualified lifeguard. With over ten years of teaching under her belt, Georgina has a wealth of experience teaching swimmers of all ages and abilities. A firm believer that swimming teachers have a duty to foster a lifelong love of swimming and water-safety in their pupils, Georgina is passionate that swimming lessons should be first and foremost . . . FUN! Georgina is also a qualified speech and language therapist and finds her knowledge in this area invaluable in creating an inclusive and accessible learning environment for all (especially when working with swimmers who have additional communication needs).




3 comments on this post


  1. This is a very interesting and informative blog Georgina.
    I have really enjoyed reading it and can tell you have an excellent understanding of the challenges some young people have when learning.
    I think it’s great to provide lots of visual demonstrations and that now we are teaching from poolside this is easier for the children to see.
    To have a set routine and structure to your lesson is a good idea, if all children know what to expect, knowing that at the end of the lesson they will have fun, be taking part in a game, this must make them try harder during the lesson.
    It must make any learning difficult if the person is extra sensitive to their surrounding or indeed under sensitive and it is something unless you have experienced it I think it could be difficult to sort out and help with, we really need to think outside the box, so to speak.
    For anyone to experience anxiety at a level where they have a meltdown must be very upsetting, so to have a strategy to diffuse or indeed prevent this situation is a good idea. Getting as much information from parents is valuable advice.
    Thank you again for taking the time to write this very interesting blog, I am going to watch the video you have mentioned.

  2. Thank you for this blog it is very useful information and I am going to watch the video you suggest.
    I think that some of the ways we structure lessons for children with Autism also apply to younger children. I have found some younger children can have a melt down for no reason at all, or at least I have been left with the thought WHY???
    I have during my time teaching come across more boys with an Autism diagnosis and find it an interesting theory that girls are able to mask the fact they have Autism. I fully agree “The better you get to know them, the easier it will be for you to create a fun and engaging lesson and an environment specifically catered to support their needs, allowing your swimmer to reach their full potential.”
    Thank you again Georgina, please keep writing your blogs, they are very useful.

  3. Thank you so much Georgina for putting together this valuable information to help us swimming teachers to understand the needs of children with autism. I found it very detailed and informative and it has given me a better understanding of how to encourage and include all children in my lessons.
    I am really enjoying your blogs.

    Also Hayden thank you for your great swimpal package you are so thorough and helpful! It’s such a great product that you have developed.





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