2017-08-23

Swim program designed for people with Autism helps them excel

by Brittany Wentzell

  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL PHOTO</p><p>Olivia Pittman, Acting Aquatic Manager at the Lunenburg County Lifestyle Centre holds up one of the tools instructors at LCLC use to help teach people with Autism swim lessons.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Gabriel Morales-Lopez and instructor Madeleine Robitaille go over a lesson at the LCLC.</p>

Learning to swim can be overwhelming for anyone, but that process can be even more difficult when you have Autism.

But a program at the Lunenburg County Lifestyle Centre (LCLC) designed for children, and even adults with Autism, has seen some children who couldn't cope with regular lessons excel.

"We've had kids who took swimming lessons and were unable to succeed in the levels because they were distracted by other kids in the class or all the noise ... so they were never able to focus on the skills and were never able to complete their levels, and then do Autism Swim lessons and be able to pass two or three levels in one session," said Olivia Pittman, Acting Aquatic Manager at LCLC.

The program is done in partnership with the Red Cross, Autism Nova Scotia, and the LCLC, and Pittman says it's popular, not just with kids who keep coming back for more lessons, but also for swim instructors, who say it's one of their favourite parts of the job.

Lessons are done in small groups and instructors try to keep it as quiet as possible. The program also uses similar methods like picture communication that are used for children with Autism in classroom settings.

"So you stick the skill on it like 'stick your mouth in the water' and children with Autism are very visual learners so basically you have all these little skills they need to complete in a lesson and then you put a little star on them," said Pittman, explaining a plastic board with spots on it to stick lessons and gold stars with Velcro.

Pittman says some swim students come back again and again and others have been inspired to start private lessons later on

It's not without its challenges though.

"For the instructors, the challenge for them is that the children range from low to high on the Autism spectrum," said Pittman. "They have to learn different techniques that work and each person is different."

Noise or splashing can bother some which is why the pool is generally booked so that the lessons take place with just the students in the program present in the pool.

The instructors are all trained in Autism 101 so that they learn how to use tools that work best for swimmers with Autism and to learn what kind of behaviour they may encounter in the pool.

"As long as (the swimmers) are in the water, having fun, becoming more calm around water, that is just a win right there," said Pittman.

All of the students and their parents have individual goals. Some want to improve their skills like learning different strokes or dives while others just want to be more comfortable around water. Based on their needs, the students are paired up with instructors who work best in those categories.

The program, which started in 2014 around the time LCLC opened, is a hit with parents too, one of whom sent a letter praising the program, saying their son came home with three swim badges in one lesson.

"Programs like swimming and yoga may just seem like little things but the self confidence swimming has blessed my son with, we have gone from the boy who sat on the stairs crying to diving into deep water," the unnamed mom wrote in a letter Pittman showed LighthouseNOW.

Pittman says the lessons run for six weeks and are paid for by the South Shore Chapter of Autism Nova Scotia.

"Kids and adults can do it, really it's anyone with Autism," said Pittman.

The next session starts this fall. Interested participants can email Pittman for more information at opitman@lclc.ca

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