Specialty Swimming Instruction

Step Three—Show Me

“Show me what you can do.”

Wow! Imagine that you are Sara. The moving water frightens you. The other children’s activity threatens you. And, you don’t want anyone to touch you; it’s uncomfortable.

So, instead of telling you to dip your head under water or blow bubbles, your instructor, Nancy, smiles and says; “Show me what you can do.”

Sara realizes her instructor is not asking her to do anything scary or hurtful. She realizes she can do a lot of things. She feels in control.

Eventually, Sara and her aide join a group of children. Her instructor asks everyone to blow bubbles. Sara’s aide turns to her and says, “Show me how you can blow bubbles Sara.”

Together, Sara and her aide blow a hole in the water. Neither of them gets their face wet.

Then, her instructor asks everyone to bob.

Sara’s aide says to her, “Show me how to put your face in the water.”

Together Sara and her aide slowly, carefully place the tip of their chin in the water.

When Sara’s aide puts Sara’s needs before the desire for conformity, she forms a strong relationship with Sara and reduces resistance. In other words, she prepares Sara so she can learn to swim. Soon, Sara, when she is ready, places her face in the water and glides.

Step Four—Develop A Consistent Routine

All children feel more comfortable with a routine, but a student with autism requires one to gain control over threatening sensations.

In each swim lesson, Sara follows the same pattern though not necessarily the same activities. For instance, Sara arrives for class and sits on the bench. “Sara, it’s your turn,” Nancy says as she lifts the mat out of the water. Sara walks over and helps Nancy place the mat on the deck. They sit down and do two warm up exercises. After they finish, they sit on the edge of the pool, kick their feet, twist their torso, place both hands on the edge and slide into the water. Now they tackle the back float and walk through the water. When class is about to finish, Nancy prepares Sara. “Sara, we have one minute left,” she says as they move toward the ladder. After one minute, Nancy closes the lesson by saying, “Thank you for coming, goodbye Sara.” At this prompt, Sara immediately climbs up the ladder and exits the pool with her aide.


Eventually, Sara learns to go under, over and through a hula-hoop as she talks about computers and dinosaurs. Later in the year, a friend and her sister join her during the class and soon the self-proclaimed “chicken of the deep” is swimming in water over her head. She joins a more advanced class and begins asking Nancy how she can perfect her strokes.

Sara no longer needs her aide to accompany her to the pool and she does not need to come early. As a matter of fact, she now wants to show her little sister how to jump into the pool. At school, her teacher’s remark that this once uncommunicative child tells everyone about her swimming lessons. Sara has felt the joy of mastering a skill and her confidence has grown. And that is a good thing.

Soon, she has outgrown Nancy’s classes and moves into traditional swim instruction. But, more exciting, Sara is now able to go to a public beach and enjoy the experience. Instead of sitting on a towel and screaming, she is having fun and even plays with the other children.

Paula Wanzer, MA, CTRS, is a certified recreation therapist, co-owner of One Step Further with Nancy Pleiter-Sadowy, M.Ed., CTRS and author of Surf’s Up For Flynn, a book documenting how one of Nancy’s students with autism glided from fear to triumph using these strategies. You can contact her at osfpw1@aol or 603-279-7829.

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