diving with disability
I vividly remember the first time I was told that my son, Richard, has autism. He had just turned four, and after his doctor said that he probably had a speech delay, further testing was done. When the diagnosis finally came back as autism, I was heartbroken, thinking that there would be so many things that this sweet, kind little boy may never be able to do; I wondered what the quality of his life would be like. As it turned out, Richard would show us that he was capable of much more than we ever imagined. At the age of 16, he became a scuba diver.
Richard had always loved the water and was a very competent swimmer, but I assumed that scuba diving was out of the question for him. While Richard is verbal, he has difficulty speaking in sentences, and sometimes it is hard for him to understand what others are asking him to do if they don’t demonstrate it first. Even though he is always eager to learn new skills, there would be no way that he could comprehend dive tables or be able to assist a fellow diver in an emergency. My husband, Scott, and I, both experienced divers, had come to the conclusion that snorkelling would be as far as Richard would be able to go breathing underwater. But all of that changed when we learned about the Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA).
In 2013, an instructor at our local dive shop had earned his HSA instructor certification, and explained that with the proper training and supervision, Richard just might be able to dive. Richard would not be expected to know dive tables or assist others in an emergency, but he would need to know how to signal and react to an emergency should he have one. However, we first had to find out if Richard was even comfortable diving underwater.
My husband and I, along with Richard’s instructor, held a Discover Diving class for Richard in the local pool. Within an hour of first breathing through a regulator, Richard was swimming around the deep end of the pool in full scuba gear, as relaxed as could be. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. The best part was seeing the huge smile on Richard’s face. I remember thinking, “This might really happen. My son may actually become a scuba diver!”
Like many people with autism, Richard is very visual; he learns best by observing. He also has a remarkable memory. These traits allowed Richard to easily learn and perform the diving skills that were demonstrated to him by his instructor. We did make a few modifications to help him. For instance, we couldn’t say, “Pretend you’re out of air,” because Richard can’t relate to that. So to teach him what to do in an out-of-air emergency, we had to turn his air off while he stood up in the shallow end of the pool breathing through his regulator. Then he could experience what it felt like to be out of air, and learn what to do if that happened underwater. Once he knew what to do, it took very little time for him to demonstrate these skills in the water. The more he learned, the more he was proud of himself for what he was accomplishing, and my husband and I could not be prouder.
Richard did his Open Water checkout dives in our local quarry. At first, I was concerned that he would not be as comfortable in this new environment as he was in the pool, but my worries were immediately put to rest as I witnessed his excitement looking at the fish, turtles, and freshwater eels. He performed all of his skills flawlessly. He loved every minute of it, and at the end of that weekend his hard work had paid off – he was a certified diver!
Richard’s HSA certification requires that he have two other certified divers with him at all times, so naturally Scott and I always dive with him. Scott usually stays right next to Richard to assist with his buoyancy if needed, and I am usually within arm’s reach taking pictures.
As a professional underwater photographer, I am thrilled to be there to document my son’s journey as an adaptive diver. Richard is 20 years old now, and since becoming certified, he has dived the coral reefs of Bonaire and Florida; he has dived with sharks at the North Carolina Aquarium; he has snorkelled with whale sharks, manta rays, and manatees; and he has even dived in a cavern in Mexico! I hope that together, we can dispel misconceptions about what those with disabilities are capable of, and also raise awareness about adaptive diving programmes. Scuba diving has enriched Richard’s life in countless ways, and best of all, we can share our passion for diving together as a family.