div­ing with dis­abil­ity

Scuba Diver Australasia - - Contents - Text & im­ages by Tanya Houp­per­mans

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.

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