How to Create Sensory-Friendly and Autism Swim Lessons 

Did you know that the World Health Organization says that drowning is the third major cause of death for children and youth? And the leading cause of accidental deaths? Swimming lessons are an important part of promoting water safety and preventing drowning. Moreover, sensory-friendly and austim swim lessons ensure that many more children are introduced to water safety to prevent drowning.

Swimming is fun for many children. And learning to swim is fun, too. However, for many children, typical swimming lessons are not enjoyable, accessible or inclusive because swimming pools and swimming lessons are sensory-rich.  Sensory-rich activities can contribute to sensory overload in children and are a particular challenge for children with sensory sensitivities, sensory overload or sensory issues of any type. Children who struggle with the sensory experience of swimming may include autistic children, neurodiverse children, children who experience anxiety, ADHD, are post-concussion, have a developmental disability, or experience hearing or vision loss. You likely know of a child in your circle of family or friends who experiences one of these differences.

Offering sensory-friendly swimming lessons and sensory-friendly pool hours make swimming more accessible and inclusive.

Young children wearing swimsuits and goggles leaning on the edge of pool.

What are the benefits of swimming?

Physical benefits of swimming

Swimming is a form of low-impact exercise that can stimulate several different senses. Additionally, this activity helps to work all muscles in the body, including your legs, arms and core. Ultimately, engaging in this type of physical activity has been shown to improve mobility and coordination. This is particularly beneficial for younger children that may have difficulty with their balance outside of the water. Additionally, swimming improves fine motor skills as well as enhances speech.

Cognitive benefits of swimming

In addition to physical benefits, swimming has also been shown to improve cognition. For example, swimming has shown to be an effective method of reducing stress among children. Connor Mollison, a swim coach and individual with autism, explained that swimming provides an opportunity for children to practice meditation. While swimming, everyone has to focus on controlling their breathing while moving in and out of the water. This allows people to practice slow and controlled breaths, which helps to provide a feeling of relaxation.

Additionally, swimming helps to improve social skills and emotional regulation. For many children with sensory processing disorders, engaging in play with other children may result in stress and anxiety. This may be due to feeling uncomfortable with social interactions or being within sensory-rich environments. However, swimming offers a unique opportunity to engage in parallel play with other children. This simply means that your child is able to be in the presence of other children playing and interacting while still having the opportunity to engage in independent play.

Why are swimming lessons good for children with sensory issues?

While you might think that swimming lessons should be avoided for children with sensory issues, because they are sensory-rich, they are incredibly important and can be helpful if they are made sensory-friendly.

Water safety

There are several benefits of swimming lessons for children with sensory issues. One key and critical benefit is water safety. Participating in swimming lessons helps children gain skills needed to be safe in and around water. Making swimming lessons sensory-friendly, helps children with sensory issues gain important skills to improve their water safety and prevent drowning.

Sensory exploration

Another added benefit of swimming lessons is the sensory aspect. Does it seem counter-intuitive that a sensory-rich environment helps sensory issues? Sensory exploration is important for all children, including children with and without sensory issues. By making swimming lessons sensory-friendly, children with sensory issues are included. And, with a few, small changes, can feel comfortable exploring their senses and developing important sensory-motor skills.

Immersing yourself in water engages all the senses. All the senses include what a child sees, hears, tastes, touches, and smells. Swimming also engages a child’s sense of movement, sense of balance, and internal body sense (called interoception). The sensory experience in water allows children to explore all of their senses in a fun way. Additionally, the repetitive, rhythmic motions used is swimming can be calming. Swimming can be an important therapeutic tool and developmentally supportive tool to help children learn new skills and develop their sensory-motor abilities. Making a sensory-rich experience like swimming, sensory-friendly supports all children.

Socialization

Furthermore, swimming lessons provide children an opportunity to learn and practice social skills. For many children with sensory differences, interacting with their peers causes stress and anxiety. Creating fun opportunities for children to participate in swim lessons with other children gives them the opportunity to develop and practice social skills.

Three young children at sensory-friendly swim lessons with a swimming instructor.

What are sensory-friendly swim hours at a pool? 

Some pools have a sensory swim hour or sometimes otherwise known as sensory-friendly swim time.  Specifically, sensory-friendly pools usually offer specific times on specific dates where they make changes to the sensory experience at the pool. 

The sensory sensitivity that often accompanies autism can make swimming a challenge.  In fact, many people experience sensory sensitivity.  Furthermore, many people, including people of all ages, have a real challenge with their sensory experience in sensory-rich environments, like a swimming pool.  Going swimming at an indoor or outdoor pool can be an overwhelming sensory experience.  For instance, there are changes in temperature upon entering the water.  Water feels diffeten than air. Moreover, public pools are generally busy, and noisy.  There can be bothersome fluorescent lights at indoor pools. Noise can also be an issue stemming from things such as pool equipment and lifeguards blowing whistles. Indoor pools are often in large, open spaces that echo. Pools have concrete around them, that doesn’t absorb sound. Therefore, it is easy for anyone to experience sensory overload in this type of environment. 

Remember, it is important to note that you have more than five senses and all eight senses are involved while swimming! 

To help people manage the sensory-rich environment of swimming pools, sensory-friendly swim times are increasing in popularity.  Everything from community pools to theme parks, water parks, and tourist attractions are supporitng sensory-friendly swimming. And, you can even make a beach sensory-friendly.

Changes to create sensory-friendly swimming times

  • Turn off background music 
  • No announcements over a broadcast system
  • Stop noisy-equipment 
  • Offer a quiet room 
  • Limit the number of patrons 
  • Turn off waves or noisy toys 
  • Provide extra staff to support and help people
  • Put noo hair-dryer signs on hair dryers (the noise is truly bothersome) 
  • Offer free caregiver passes 
  • Staff use whistles only for alerts and emergencies, i.e., not for any other communication
  • Set specific “friendly” hours 
  • Let people know exactly what to expect 
  • Share details on your facilities website, and social media platforms 

How to create sensory-friendly swimming lessons

Changes to the pool environment are important to be accessible and inclusive. However, changing swimming lessons themselves, is also incredibly helpful. Sensory Friendly Solutions interviewed Jen Maitland, an occupational therapy student at Queen’s University.  Jen shares her experience teaching sensory-friendly swim lessons and the different ways she adapted her swim program as an instructor. Read on for her strategies:

Change the environment

There are several changes that can be made to the swimming environment to make it sensory-friendly. For children with sensory issues, this may lead to increased stress and sensory overload. However, there are several simple changes that help create a less overwhelming experience during swimming lessons, like all of those mentioned above to create sensory-friendly swim times! So incoporate sensory-friendly hours with swimming lessons.

Be patient

First and foremost, it is important to be patient. And especially patient when running swim lessons with children who have sensory sensitivities or who experience sensory overload. It may take children several different sessions to get comfortable just being aroung the pool. For example, the first couple of lessons may spend lots of time next to the pool. Or sitting on the side of the pool. Exploring water outside the pool, first. If the first few lessons only involve stepping or crouching in very shallow water, consider that a success! It is most important for the child to feel safe in the pool. Jen says it is critical to build trust, something that is key in sensory-friendly swim lessons.

Select a less busy area of the pool

Another technique to create sensory-friendly swim lessons is to run the lesson in the least busy areas of the pool.  Or at a less busy time. If possible, try to find a smaller pool or a quiet area in a bigger pool to do your swim lessons. The loud noises of other swimmers, splashes, waves, and bright pool toys are overwhelming for a child with sensory differences. Therefore, begin your swim lessons in less stimulating areas of the pool.

While recalling her experience running sensory-friendly swim lessons, Jen discussed the influence of the sensory-rich pool environment on the teaching process. She stated,

“Any time a lifeguard had to whistle for something (happened usually at least once a session), they tensed up and looked where the sound came from. A lot of swimming technique comes from relaxing your body so this made it tough.”

– Jen Maitland, OT Student

Therefore, try your best to be strategic in where you run your lessons.

Offer sensory-friendly hours

It is unrealistic to try to eliminate all loud sounds around the pool. Therefore, consider running your sensory-friendly lessons during sensory or autism hours, as previously mentionned. During these hours, changes are made to the pool area. It makes for a less sensory-rich experience. Sensory hours give children the opportunity to practice their swimming skills in a comfortable setting. Ultimately, this helps children focus more on their lessons and less on the overwhelming sensory experience at the pool.

Young child practicing dunking head in sensory-friendly swim lessons.

Sensory-friendly swim toys

Another common strategy in sensory-friendly swim lessons is using pool toys. This can include things such as pool noodles, and flutter boards. Noodles and boards can help children slowly ease into the process of swimming independently while feeling safer. They are not life-saving flotation devices, however!

Sensory-friendly swim products include swim goggles, like Frogglez, and sensory-friendly swimming caps like Hammer Head Swim Caps. Frogglez goggles are specially designed to be more comfortable, easier to put on and take off, and are very adjustable. Hammer Head swim caps are also easier to put on, do not pull on the hair, and are protective and help prevent injuries. Take not that Sensory Friendly Solutions is not paid to endorse products. Read more about other products below.

Use a graded approach in your swimming lessons

In addition to this, using a graded approach during your swimming lessons is an effective strategy.  A graded approach simply means breaking down a larger task into smaller, easier steps. For example, Jen discussed her techniques using a graded approach to help her sensory-sensitive swimmer feel comfortable dunking their head under the water.

“ At the beginning, they didn’t even get their hair wet. I’d start letting some water drip off my hand onto their head. I would then use a watering can to drip more water onto their head and then use a bucket. We then worked on getting one ear in the water, then both, and eventually their whole head underwater.”

– Jen Maitland, Occupational Therapy Student, Swim Instructor

Jen explained that this process alone took 2 months to work up to. However, using a graded approach helped her swimmer feel more comfortable in the water. This allowed her to build greater trust with her student. Therefore, when she slowly intensified the task, her swimmer felt comfortable following her.

Jen expressed that by one year of working with this swimmer, she was able to work up to holding the swimmer in the water independently with no assistive devices. Success is more important than speed in sensory-friendly swimming lessons!

Products to support a sensory-friendly swim 

There are many products that help support sensory-friendly swimming. Make them available and suggest them to parents and adult swimmers.

  • Ear bands or earplugs
  • Swim cap 
  • Swim friendly life jackets
  • Swimming goggles or masks 
  • Nose clips 
  • Full bodysuits 
  • Swim boards 
  • Handheld paddles 
  • Flippers 

Why these products are helpful? 

Ear

Water in the ears potentially resulting in ear infections and noise sensitivity is a particular challenge for many children, both with autism and other disabilities.  This issue can be alleviated with wax earplugs which tend to stay in the ears the best.  However, some children do not tolerate earplugs.  If this is the case, ear bands can be an alternative solution which is a swimming headband that covers the ears.  Some swimming headbands come with earplugs too. Additionally, the added pressure of the headband is calming on the sensory nervous system.  However, be extra cautious if a child does not hear as well with them. This may increase the safety risk while the child is swimming. 

Head

Swimming caps are now made out of many different types of materials.  Like headbands, the compression has a calming effect on the sensory nervous system too.  Some are designed for long or curly hair. 

Hammer Head swim caps are specially designed caps that are sensory-friendly. They offer head protection from injury and are less likely to pull on hair. 

Body

In addition, there are life jackets that offer more support for a child’s head.

There are more swim-friendly life jackets that let arms and legs move about.  Remember, safety first.  A life jacket is not a substitute for close adult supervision.

Swimsuits come in all shapes and styles.  For example, full-bodysuits or swimsuits that are long-sleeve, shorts, or full-body are a good choice.  Rashguard sets are also an option.  First, they offer compression, and similar to the examples cited above, this helps to calm the sensory nervous system.  Second, they help regulate the changes in body temperature while swimming.  Wet suits offer even more compression. Always choose bright colours for swim suits. Remember drowning is the leading cause of accidental deaths in children and the third major cause of death overall. Choose swim suit colours that ensure children are easily seen (in contrast to the water, the bottom of the pool or outdoor body of water).

Eyes

The water stings eyes and goggles help.  Moreover, choose goggles with wider bands to be more comfortable.  Some children may prefer a mask.  As mentioned earlier, for goggles that are perfect for a sensory-friendly swim, check out Frogglez. 

Nose

Nose plugs are often a big help to prevent water going up the nose and often come together with earplugs. 

Hands

Floatation boards.  Flotation boards give hands something to hold into!  Furthermore, they provide resistance when swimming.  Heavy muscle work has a positive effect on the sensory-nervous system too as it helps regulate the nervous system. 

Hand-held paddles.  Like floatation boards, they provide even more resistance while swimming.  In conclusion, heavy muscle work is calming and organizing for the nervous system. 

Feet

Flippers. Flippers are great fun for children.  Similar to resistance paddles they offer resistance too, and that calms! 

Frogglez Swim Goggles and Hammer Head Swim Caps are all Sensory Friendly Solutions’ Favourite Things. Sensory Friendly Solutions’ Favourite Things recognizes products that help people manage sensory sensitivity or reduce sensory overload.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and drowning 

While sharing information about swimming, children, and autistic children, in particular, it is important for you to learn about a serious topic.  Essentially children who are autistic, have a greater risk of drowning. Consequently, autism and drowning are a concern for many parents, caregivers, and swim instructors.  Here are some resources to understand and promote water safety for all children: 

Resources for autism swimming lessons

Sensory-friendly pool hours and sensory-friendly swim lessons also help autistic children and adults, because they often experience sensory sensitivity or sensory overload. There are even more resources to help, Sensory Friendly Solutions was introduced to “Autism Swim” by a small regional autism association in Miramichi, New Brunswick, Canada, called Autism Resources Miramichi.  They completed special training and fundraising and now have community support for swimming lessons for autistic children. The organization that originated Autism Swim is in Australia. 

By using these strategies to create your sensory-friendly swim lessons, and sensory-friendly swim times, you make swimming accessible and inclusive to more swimmers.

Finally, thank you to Jen Maitland, occupational therapy student, for her wonderful contributions to this blog post.

Want to ready more about related topics? Check out blog posts about:

Create a More Welcoming World and Tame Sensory Overload

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