Questions on Teaching Swim Lessons to a Swimmer with Autism

A Letter from a Swim Lesson Instructor with an Autistic Swimmer

This is part of a letter from Swimming Instructor from a country in Southern Africa. The instructor has reached out to us for guidance concerning swim lessons for a swimmer who has Asperger Syndrome. Asperger syndrome is considered a high functioning form of Autism. We have some ideas on how to teach swim lessons to a child with autism.

The Letter

I wrote to Jim about one of my swim lesson students with Asperger Syndrome.

I'd love to share with you some specific information about my student and ask your advice on how to structure his swim lessons:

The swimmer is 6 years old and received a lot of attention (related to his syndrome) because his mother is an occupational therapist. He likes numbers a lot, and his favorite cartoon is Sponge Bob. He can swim already, though in his own way. He likes to go deep into the water, to the deepest spot in the pool that I am teaching, which is about 4 ft. Maybe to avoid the sounds? I worked hard to get him to stay on the surface of the water. I even have a toy crocodile to demonstrate. His lung capacity is also very, very good, and he likes to dive for sticks. You'll be amazed at just how long he stays under water without coming up for breath. He plays in the water, just like a little dolphin, and is very fond of water.

His parents would like to see him learn to swim the formal strokes (Freestyle to start with).

That is their goal.

Observations and Some Things Tried
When I first met him, I immediately picked up his short attention span. With other children I will keep the lesson time interesting & fun, with a variety of different exercises. But this can actually be a problem because I find that when I change too sudden, he doesn't like it.

He also hates being on his back. Through the years I found different methods of getting children to like being on their back, but he just hates it. Is there an explanation for that?

He started to move his arms nicely as well as good kicking. Yet, as I progress, it gets harder (for both of us).

I do other things too to help make him stronger and develop better balance: like climbing onto a mat, climbing out of the pool, etc. But he feels cold very quickly, and then he puts his foot down squarely!!

Sometimes I feel the learning process has reached a plateau - and I'm unsure as how to go further. I have used the laminated cards too - that helps. But the learning process seems to be so slow!!

On the Positive Side
He is definitely enjoying his swimming!! He is a pleasure to work with, and though he takes up lots of energy, I thoroughly enjoy working with him. It is my desire to help special needs children - because I just know that they enjoy the water too.

Well, any input is appreciated. Thank you for your help!

  1. Questions on Teaching a Swimmer with Autism
  2. Tips for Teaching a Swimmer with Autism
  3. Learn to Swim Plateaus


Updated by Dr. John Mullen on April 27, 2016

Though your information was quite thorough, I do not know him, and as a result, you will need to make swim lesson teaching decisions based on your knowledge of him. I hope to provide you some general information that may apply to your swim lessons for teaching a swimmer with autism.

  1. Use his interest in Sponge Bob (SB) by introducing SB toys into your lessons. Use the toys to encourage him to do as he is asked to do as a liked activity. There are Sponge Bob pool toys available online.
  1. Develop a list of activities that will be performed during each lesson. Make it visual, by listing using words (if he can read) or pictures. You may also want to include SB stickers on written directions to focus his attention. Depending on his need for preparation for new activities, have his parents review the list with him periodically during the week and/or review it with him before the lesson.
  2. Schedule each activity within the lesson with his likes and dislikes in mind. Be sure to remind him of what will be coming up next. Start with a "liked" activity, followed by a new or "disliked" activity. Follow the new/disliked with a liked activity. Present 2 or 3 indifferent activities (preferably that reinforce the new or disliked activity) that he will perform willingly, followed by a liked activity. This is a self-reinforcing activity schedule format developed by a Psychologist named David Premack.
  1. If he enjoys watching videos, YouTube has a plethora of swim videos that would allow him to watch freestyle swimmers. (I didn't see one with SB however) You may also video tape him and edit the tape to include only his correct use of movements in freestyle. If he has a friend who is able to freestyle, consider videotaping his friend.
  1. Write a story in which SB is telling him about the steps in freestyle and how important it is for him to learn how to use them to swim.
  2. Because his mother is an OT, check with her regarding sensory integrative therapies.
  1. Questions on Teaching a Swimmer with Autism
  2. Tips for Teaching a Swimmer with Autism
  3. Learn to Swim Plateaus

Did your student plateau? While incorporating sound swimming progressions can help push progress along, many times teachers and parents unnecessarily get frustrated when learning appears to slow down, and this is often referred to a swimming plateau.

What swim lesson instructors and parents must understand is that the child is still learning even when it appears they are not. Learning simply doesn't always occur in nice, easy-to-see steps.

Instead, a cumulation of learning experiences is often required before you see a noticeable improvement.

This improvement or progress usually appears to come from nowhere, and when it happens, teachers and parents try to pinpoint what just happened. What did the swim instructor just do to get that result? What did the swim teacher say? But in fact, while the student was able to make an improvement in what appeared to be in a flash, it wasn't in a flash at all. The progress that was just made was only possible because of the all the previous experiences when it seemed as if the student wasn't learning anymore.

Lastly, I want to ask all parents and swim teachers, that when in doubt, turn to the late and legendary John Wooden for advice. Here's a link to a short video clip of John Wooden talking about what it means for a child to achieve success.

  1. Questions on Teaching a Swimmer with Autism
  2. Tips for Teaching a Swimmer with Autism
  1. Learn to Swim Plateaus