Teaching a child with autism to swim

Cindy - posted on 10/26/2009 ( 12 moms have responded )




How can I teach my seven year old son how to swim without a floating aid. He has high functioning autism. He says he wants to learn, but when i try to teach him he gets scared and just clings to me.

He has a lot of confidence in the water with his inflatable on, and doesn't mind water in his face or over his head.


Deanna - posted on 10/28/2009




Swimming has been a wonderful thing for my son now 12. He started off with a floaty at first but soon started to swim like a fish. Use a kiddy pool. Let it become a part of your daily activity. My son lived in ours but of course we live down south. Not sure where you are. I let him take his cars in the kiddy pool and action figures. Also I bought him goggles for the bathtub and filled it up real high. You can't get in the tub with him he has to do it on his own. By age five he was swimming on his own. Some of our happest days are at the beach. Wish we lived closer. Something about the motion of the water is so soothing to him. When we go to the beach for a few days it is heaven. He sleeps through the night, no meltdowns, no fighting with his brothers. After the kiddie pool we did up grade to one of the larger ones. One of those 3ft high ones. They don't last long but was worth him getting over his fear of swimming. Hope this helps.


View replies by

Ben - posted on 06/27/2016




My autistic 6 yr old daughter also loves the water, no sense of danger so getting her swimming was very important to us. She's non-verbal and not great at following instructions (thats just her nature, not part of the condition), so lessons were out of the question.
She hated arm bands, and they don't particularly aid swimming. We used a Swim Fin (it's a foam sharks fin that attached to their back), she loved it, just enough to keep her safe under supervision, but allowed her to use her arms and she was swimming in no time, she no longer needs it now and is a great swimmer. We have always joined her in the pool and kept it fun, no pressure and lots of positive re-enforcement.

Last year for some reason she completely went of swimming, melt-downs and wouldn't even take a bath, no idea why, just happend.
So we went to the pool and just sat nearby, no pressure, waited about an hour then sat ion my lap with my feet in the water, then left, 2 days later did it again, no pressure to get in, after a few visits like this she's back in the water and as confident as ever.

I'm not a professional but I think it was possibly the noise, just a thought.
Hope this helps.

Kelly - posted on 07/26/2012




We are going to swim school and doing private lessons. They have Friday nights that are less busy and we are doing a 7pm lesson with only one other private lesson going on.
My son Noah loves the Water but with that comes risk. He will wear a life jacket but he will just go in even if he does not have life jacket on so I want him to understand the water is a fun place but also a danger zone as well if we don't follow the rules. My Noah is 3 1/2 and had only had 4 swimming lessons. He does not like the showers we take a bath a home, and the Swim suit machine he covers he ears. Does not like that noise either. Also me as mom I can not teach him new skills it normally comes from a therapist, or PCA who Noah will try new things! I hope this helps but there are swim schools out there that have special need programs.

Lori - posted on 07/26/2012




I am a swim intsructor and a parent of a child in the autism spectrum (PDD-NOS) I have had my son in water since 6wks old and he could swim 25m lentghs of the pool 8times in a row by 3. this is his experiance. his sensory processing allows him to enjoy the feelings one encounters in the water. (ie wet cold etc) other children with autism and sensory processing issues may not enjoy it at all.
Cindy, your child sounds ready for lessons with a non parent instructor. not all instructors are created equal. Any instructor however will benifit from having the information required to help your child.
George just started lesson. he isn't good at following the lesson plans but the instructor works with me to come up with ways to motivate him to try new skills.
@ Paulette, don't give up on lessons untill you've given some one who is aware of your sons needs try. from your post It seems like the instructor and yourself weren't aware of PDD NOS at the time and that can make a hug differnce with your child.

first thing to remember if your child does well with routin on land its the same in the pool. first rules then floats swims jumps. same order every day.... this is sometime the case and other not so much find out and then ask for it.

second, ABA. look it up if you havent used this systen of learning and see if this might work for you. idea is child does skill to receive reward that is effective ie front floats then plays with squirtie toys

third if child doesn't want to go alone arrange to go in the water too.... then see if you can be in less and less over time. no rush just as it work.... the end goal is success for your child.

I you think any of this is helpfull I have more.
Best wishes.

Sandy - posted on 10/29/2009




you migh ty starting him out in shallower water so he can get used to it and then just try a little deeper and a lttle deeper. I wrked with my son and even though hes not a real good swimmer he loves it and is gettin better at it.

Marcella - posted on 10/28/2009




My daughter who is 4 has autism she does not speak ... she loves the water and we spent a lot of time at a local water park over summer I would have to put on a life vest on her and still watch her closely because she would try to swallow water. I would love to find out where to get her swim lessons but I am not sure that she would get the concept with a instructer does anyone know the best way I am very short tempered with people who think my child is stubborn or acting out so does anyone know of a swim school or program that teaches special needs children

Judi - posted on 10/28/2009




There are swimming instructors out there that know and understand Autism. We have a pool and I'm doing it myself because of the noise and smell at indoor pools and cost. Music and singing (Ricky is 3) help they also help with listening. I have to say though that it's really cold so get yourself a wet suit.

Chantelle - posted on 10/28/2009




Just keep trying, my son is 7 and has just started swimming with school. He actually is enjoying it for the first time as I had tried numerous times before without success. He obviously can't swim but he is giving it a go. He will get better with time at his own speed.

Paulette - posted on 10/27/2009




Hi Cindy Unfortunately I have had an extremely bad experience trying to teach my son to swim. I started him in lessons when he was 8 months old which he seemed to love initially but by the time he was 14 months old he would cry and throw tantrums in the pool. I stupidly listened to the swimming instructor that there was nothing wrong with him and he just wanted to get his own way.

I kept perservering until he was 2 but instead of any improvement, his behaviour and swimming actually became worse. The swimming instructor kept insisting he was just stubborn and he could do it and I should not let him grab hold of me too quickly when he was underwater trying to swim to me but everytime I did what they said he would come up choking and obviously extremely distressed and then wouldn't want to do anymore of the lesson. He went from being able to hold his breathe and swim underwater about 1metre to me to everytime he put his head under he would gulp water because he was so scared and would immediately panic and swallow water.

I foolishly continued to listen to the swimming instructor because I thought they knew what they were doing. I tried being in the pool with him, being out of the pool, private lessons one on one to 2 lesson's a week but he kept getting worse. When it was time to leave for the lesson I would have to drag him to the car snd then out of the car to the pool crying and screaming. Even after the lesson was over and we were home he would continue to throw tantrums for the rest of the day.

By the time he was nearly 3 I was so distressed and didn't know what to do. I finally had a few heated conversations with the swimming instructor, which of course did not help because in her opinion he was just naughty and I was not strict enough with him. The final straw came when I went to take him to his lesson one day and he had pushed all his toy boxes behind his door so I couldn't open it to get him out. I just broke down in tears and thought my god what have I done. I took him out of lessons for 12months and started on the long road to repair all the damaging effects these lessons had on him.

When he turned 4 I tried lessons again at a completely different centre which managed to get him back to holding his breathe and going under water. He initally seemed to be really enjoying it again and for the first couple of months his swimming finally started to actually improve. We continued going for 6 months but after his inital improvement he just didn't get any better. Child after child came and went up to the next level from his class but still my son stayed the same. He started complaining again about going to lessons and I noticed that even though the swimming instructors were really great with him initially they seemed to be frustrated with him because he wouldn't always listen and sit still in between his turn so they started the usual disciplining techniques they use on the typical children but unfortunately he just does not respond so he gets into more trouble.

I of course started to panic because I could see the same old vicious circle starting all over again so I pulled him out of lessons again. He is now 5 but I haven't attempted lessons again because I am very disheartened that their is anyone out there that can actually teach him to swim. We are building a new house in the next 6 months and are going to put in a pool so I am hoping we might be able to teach him ourselves.

My son has only just been diagnosed with PDDNOS which of course now explains a lot of his behaviour and reactions to his swimming lessons. I feel so bad that I made him suffer at lessons for so long that I don't know if I could ever send him again unless I was 100% confident that the swimming instructor actually knew how to and had actually taught children to swim on the Spectrum. I would just say be very very wary of letting someone else teach him to swim. Good luck.

User - posted on 10/27/2009




I would agree with Lisa. Get him into lessons with a really experienced instructor.

My son loves the water, but he will not go under...he hasn't been able to figure out how to hold his breath...so anytime he has gone under, he's come up choking.

Good luck!

Lisa - posted on 10/27/2009




Wow. you are complete opposite than us. My son was terrified to get water on his face or go under the water even in the bath tub. My son also wanted to learn, so we put him in swim lessons. He was much better with some one other than me or my husband. When I got in the water with him he would cling to me also, but with his teachers he got over it much faster. It took 6 weeks of lessons over the summer, going everyday, but he did eventually learn. And at the end of the summer he was jumping off the diving board and having fun. And now refuses to wear a floaty vest. If swim lessons are an option, maybe he would do better with a teacher other than you. If not, sorry I dont have any suggestions. I hope things work out for you. I think swimming is an excellent thing for our children to learn, now my son wants to be on the swim team when he turns 6. Good luck.

Join Circle of Moms

Sign up for Circle of Moms and be a part of this community! Membership is just one click away.

Join Circle of Moms