Teaching swimming to children with special needs
SWIMMING PROGRAMS ARE AVAILABLE FOR SPECIAL NEEDS CHILDREN
Water and swimming can inspire both tremendous fear and great joy in special needs children. Pools can be used for aquatic therapy, to learn essential water safety, and for swimming.
“Aquatic therapy is occupational or physical therapy that is performed in the water,” Karen Bronstein, an occupational therapist in private practice based out of Englewood, says. “The buoyancy of water can help facilitate balance and ease of movement. Water provides light resistance, and moving one’s body in the water promotes strengthening by activating muscles against this resistance.”
WARMTH OF THE WATER
“Warm water can soothe tight muscles that are often problematic for children post-surgery and for children with neuromuscular disorders, such as cerebral palsy,” she says. “For very weak or very low-tone children, the buoyancy of water and freedom of movement within the water is something that is impossible to replicate in a gym, and can provide great joy.”
Beyond aquatic therapy, overcoming fear of the water and, ultimately, learning to swim can provide numerous benefits, including necessary sensory input, improvement of social skills and crucial water-safety lessons. The JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly offers private lessons to children with special needs.
“We have seven instructors, all of
whom are trained in adaptive physical education and/or adaptive water safety,” says Shelley Levy, director of the Guttenberg Center for Special Services at the JCC.
She says that while some swim participants have physical challenges, most have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). For those participants with needs that require it, the JCC has a hydraulic lift.
“Our aquatics instruction staff is sensitized to the characteristics of children with ASD,” Levy says.
Children as young as 3 can participate in the swim lessons.
“This program grew organically as a response to the needs of the community,” Levy says.
She cites water safety, self-regulation and self-stimulation of sensory needs as three great benefits to the swim lessons.
“It also helps release anxiety and stress. Kids love playing in the water,” Levy says. “We have a beautiful water park, and the children love water pouring on their heads.”
Of course, while some children have no fear of the water, which makes learning to swim imperative because they may not realize their own limitations, other children are very afraid.
“We do an intake process with any family who has a child with special needs, so that the instructor will be fully prepared to work with that child and their particular needs,” Levy says.
The YWCA Bergen County in Ridgewood offers private and group lessons for children with special needs. Aquatics manager Heather Seeback observes that swimming gives the children freedom.
“These are kids whose lives are usually structured and constrained,” Seeback says. “In the pool, they can be themselves and be free.”
She emphasizes that they “work on skills in a manner that fits each participant.” Many kids with ASD like to be underwater, but for those who are afraid, “we help them get over their fear,” Seeback says.
She recalls a girl who started in the fall and began afraid but eventually was able to swim with a belt. Now she swims without one.
“It is great to see the progress that the kids make,” Seeback says.
Both the JCC on the Palisades and the YWCA Bergen County are deemed authorized providers by New Jersey’s Division of Developmental Disabilities and work with families to help defray costs of their programs.
SOMETHING DIFFERENT Aquatic therapy can break up the monotony for children, while also calming them.
EASING FEARS Equipment like this can help children who may be afraid to get in the water.