Swimming and Autism
Dr Alex Ng Wei Siong & DSA’s Bryan Yap with hosts Chiong Pei Pei and Jan Chin.
Swimming is the best way for kids with Autism to develop their motor, responsive and social skills
Autism as it’s generally known is a neurodevelopmental disorder which impairs normal social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and is also characterized by repetitive behaviour. Symptoms usually become apparent before a child is three years old. Autism is one of the three recognized disorders in the autism spectrum (ASDs) and affects how information is processed by the brain by altering how the nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize.
This is most probably the reason why swimming is a great activity for children who are on the spectrum. They are often at their happiest in the water. Maybe it’s the sensory pleasure of being surrounded by something that gives the freedom of motion. It could also be that the feeling of being surrounded by water takes them back to a womb-like sensation that gives them a sense of calm; or it could also be due to the fact that, underwater, sound and vision softens. Besides these, swimming is also a big socializing opportunity for someone who may normally be kept away from social interaction to an extent.
Bryan from D Swim Academy (DSA) who specialises in Infant and toddler swimming education says that in the DSA Lil Swimmer program, the children are introduced to the reflex actions and thereby motor skills are developed. The parent and child work together in the water through repetitive motions to develop the three essential requirements for water skills used later, namely water familiarity, buoyancy and mobility.
For kids with special needs going to the DSA Lil’ Swimmer program, it is almost like hydro-therapy, where they learn together with the other children, but take the lessons more slowly. Bryan says kids with special needs are accommodated with the regular sessions and only the severe cases are usually given one-to-one sessions. Bryan recalls that a child with mild autism who had joined the DSA Lil Swimmers program at the age of three was very hesitant at first, but slowly and surely, overcame his fears and eventually went on to join up for the next level program, DSA Children Learn to Swim, at the age of six.
These kids just need to go over the movements at a slower pace and may take a longer time to learn, but otherwise there is no differentiation.
The class also helps the both the children and the parents to break out from the normal routines and the social stigma that they may sometimes face. The parents are also encouraged not to give up on their kids and look to give them a normal childhood to the extent possible.
Malaysia has a lot of facilities and programs where these kids can actively participate and grow up with a normal childhood. But care must be taken that one should join only under certified educators for any activity. In swimming, while there may be many teachers who give classes for babies and toddlers, very few are certified teachers. Most are usually only trained as lifesavers.
The difference that a certified teacher makes is the understanding of the psychological and child mental development and the certified programs taught are tuned to the child’s overall development. This is very essential in their future growth, not just as a swimmer but also life in general.
Bryan says this awareness is something that needs to be imparted as much as possible and is the main message that needs to be carried through to the public at large.