Swimming & Autism Spectrum Disorder: Ultimate Guide for Adults and Kids

What if the calming power of the water's gentle touch could calm the heightened senses and nervous temperament of someone with autism?

What if introductory swim lessons could become an ultimate way to build coordination and motor skills?

What if the atmosphere of the pool could transform into a social outlet, giving you or your kids limitless possibilities to make friends with shared interests?

Believe it or not, my "what-if" scenarios are not imaginary.
autism and swimming
Source: NJ.com
My name is Dan, and I've dedicated the past 20+ years to professional swimming & coaching. In the process, I've helped thousands of adults and kids of all ages, skills, and abilities become confident swimmers.

During my 20-year history with swimming, I've seen first-hand the transformative power of swimming & its countless benefits for individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

These are genuine benefits of swimming that can change the quality of life in adults and children with autism spectrum disorders. The best of what you'll read in this blog post is based on numerous success stories I've witnessed at my swim school.

Let's dive in!

Defining Autism Spectrum Disorder

To recognize the positive impact of swimming on adults & children on the autism spectrum, you need to understand this disorder, its countless challenges & limitations of Autism Spectrum Disorder, and the amount of hard work one with ADS has to put in to gain full autonomy in life.

What is an autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by a set of neurodevelopmental conditions, predominantly marked by a lack of proper social skills, difficulties with cognitive processing, verbal and nonverbal communication, and restricted interests.

"Spectrum" denotes the wide range of symptoms and severity across autistic individuals, from mildly impaired to severely disabled.

The latest fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), updated by the American Psychiatric Association, reclassified the formerly numerous separate diagnoses, like Autistic Disorder, Asperger's Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), into one sizeable diagnostic category of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

Challenges of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Individuals with autism often struggle with a cluster of physical impediments that not only restrict their everyday routines but also present a challenge to their physical health. The physical manifestations of ASD are diverse, from fine and gross motor deficits to other unique metabolic issues.

Let's unveil some of the physical struggles of people with ASD that are backed by scientific evidence. We will cover not only these adversities but also the impact of aquatic therapy & its particular benefits for autistic people.
poor motor coordination in children with autism

Lack of motor skills

Unfortunately, many individuals with autism struggle with motor skills-related issues daily. This encompasses problems with both fine motor skills—those involved with writing or tying shoelaces—and gross motor skills—those involved with running or jumping. These struggles can affect everyday tasks and may lead to frustration or avoidance of certain activities altogether.
physical health of autistic children and adults

Poor muscle strength

General muscle hypotonia is a leading cause of poor muscular strength and endurance in many children & and adults with autism spectrum, which may potentially impact their participation in physical activities and recreational sports that entail physical exertion or effort for any considerable period.

Minshew, Turner, and Goldstein (2004) emphasized the issue, stating that it can lead to potential long-term limitations, restricting many autistic individuals from fun activities that require a certain level of fitness, which is not only important for health but also for being able to interact and enjoy life socially.

Cognitive impairments

Cognitive and learning problems make up the bulk of the issues experienced by children with autism. These impairments affect their processing of information and solving problems, ultimately impairing learning new skills. Research has proven the challenges and subtleties of these cognitive impairments, which calls for specialization in educational approaches and interventions.

Ashwood et al. (2016) conducted a particularly influential study on the cognitive profiles of children with autism, discovering a high variability in cognitive abilities from below-average to above-average levels. These findings suggest that autism significantly affects memory retention, attention to detail, and generalization of information from one context to another.

Furthermore, Keen, Webster, and Ridley (2016) researched learning difficulties directly associated with autism, such as difficulties in executive functioning and central coherence. All these cognitive challenges might make task planning and organization difficult and present difficulties in grasping the big picture in complex scenarios.

Increased BMI

Obesity is significantly more prevalent among adults & children with autism, which needs to be factored in as a health risk that predisposes an individual to other health issues like diabetes and hypertension.

The study by Curtin et al., 2010 underlines that it is of utmost importance to lifestyle, behavioral, and environmental change. It repeatedly returns our attention to the power of supportive habits based on a balanced diet and regular physical activity.

Insufficient Coordination & Balance

Obesity is significantly more prevalent among adults & children with autism, which needs to be factored in as a health risk that predisposes an individual to other health issues like diabetes and hypertension.

The study by Curtin et al., 2010 underlines that it is of utmost importance to lifestyle, behavioral, and environmental change. It repeatedly returns our attention to the power of supportive habits based on a balanced diet and regular physical activity.

Inadequate Social Skills

Areas of significant difficulty for children and adults with autism include insufficient social skills and high anxiety.

Social difficulties often include impairments in the decoding and understanding social cues, nonverbal information, and the processing of social interactions; when combined, they typically lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Most autistic people find it difficult to conceptualize the theory of mind, which means the ability to understand that other people have thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and intentions that are different from their own. These challenges may lead to misunderstandings in social interaction and difficulty forming and maintaining relationships.

Overwhelming Anxiety

Anxiety is a prevalent co-morbid condition with autism, and it further compounds social difficulties. High anxiety in adults and children with autism often leads to avoidance behavior due to fear of judgment, rejection, or failure in a social situation. It leads to a lack of social initiative to cultivate social growth and improve quality of life.

Increased Risk of Drowning

Drowning is the leading cause of death among children with autism, and many studies have shown this increased prevalence and its causes. Scientific research helps us understand these risks and guides the development of effective preventive measures.

From the critical study of Guan and Li (2017), we get to see a piece of solid evidence that drowning risks increase for children with autism. We find that a child with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis has increased odds of drowning by 160 times more than an average child.

This huge number can be attributed to several behavior characteristics that children with ASD might have; they include elopement or wandering from safe places, a fascination or attraction to water bodies, and, more often, an underestimation of the dangers associated with it.

Health Benefits of Swimming

Close your eyes for a second and think about being able to escape stress, gain sharp focus, relax with every stroke, enjoy peace, and experience pleasure. That's the magic of swimming.

Get ready to see how just one swim can make waves of change — positive changes — that enrich the lives of individuals with autism in ways you never realized.

Resistance training with no weights

Regular swimming was found to increase muscle strength because of water's natural resistance. Water provides much more resistance than air with no impact on joints, so every swim and every movement is like a little workout that requires no weights.

For adults & children with autism spectrum disorder who struggle with low muscle tone, swimming is an excellent physical activity that helps build muscle strength in a supportive, low-stress environment.

Enhanced Motor Skills

General well-being and engagement in everyday activities are boosted through improved motor skills. A study conducted by Yanardag et al. (2013) focused on the benefit of structured aquatic activities, particularly swimming programs, to improve the motor skills of children with autism spectrum disorders.

The research concluded that the children exposed to the swimming program experienced significant improvements in fine and gross motor skills.

Improves Balance & Coordination

Research conducted by Yilmaz, Yanardag, Birkan, and Bumin in 2004 revealed promising findings that swimming can significantly enhance body balance and coordination in people with autism spectrum disorders.

Swimming places the body in an unusual environment where fluid dynamics imply constant adjustment to its position. Unlike static solid ground, water is a medium requiring constant balancing of the body to adjust to less predictable changes in dynamics.

This unique sensory experience engages and strengthens the vestibular system responsible for balance and proprioceptive feedback mechanisms. Thus, swimming builds muscles and trains the neuromuscular system to react and stabilize the body more effectively—even on land!

Decreases Sensory Sensitivity

A study conducted in 2017 by Alaniz and colleagues looked at aquatic environments and how they can ease sensory sensitivity, a widespread problem for people with autism.

The controlled sensory environment provided by the pool water exerts a uniform hydrostatic pressure over the entire body. Alaniz and colleagues described that constant pressure applied by the water significantly decreased incoming sensory input, which provided a calming effect on the nervous system.

It further points out that buoyancy reduces the effect of gravity and creates a sensation of weightlessness, which is highly beneficial for people experiencing distress from contact with certain textures. This floating sensation reduces the levels of anxiety and stress experienced due to sensory integration and processing issues, making water exercise swimming programs an enjoyable form of physical activity for adults and children with autism spectrum disorders.

Provides Social Outlet & Improves Social Skills

In 2011, Ennis discussed the social advantages of swimming for children with autism, studying participation in group swim lessons and how they can potentially enhance the social skills of autistic children.

In her research, Ennis found that group swimming lessons in a pool provided a more socially structured yet flexible environment that was inviting for all, including children on the autism spectrum.

During these lessons, the children with autism are exposed to different types of social interactions: following shared rules, taking turns, and other cooperative activities—all in the context of learning to swim. The supportive & encouraging environment provided by the swim instructor, combined with social interactions with peers, showed significant improvement in social development.

Teaches Kids and Adults Important Water Safety Skills

Swimming lessons play a critical role in reducing the risk of drowning for all children, particularly children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who are at an increased risk. Targeted swimming programs for children with ASD teach basic swimming skills and provide essential water safety information, reducing the risk of drowning.

A conducted by Alaniz, Rosenberg, Beard, and Rosario in 2017 showed that structured swimming programs could successfully teach children with autism how to respond during water emergencies, increase comfort in the water, and improve overall aquatic skills. Such goals are often organized around skills like floating, treading water, and moving to the side of the pool, which are essential to avoid drowning. The structure of these lessons makes children with ASD learn in an environment designed to cater to their unique learning and sensory needs, making the lesson more effective.

In addition, a study by Jorgensen, Doney, and Gannon in 2018 further underscored that responsive and individualized learning methods in swimming instructions were a top priority for autistic children. The authors found that tailored training programs improved water safety skills and increased their retention in autistic children. Retention is quite important as it allows the children to remember or use the skill gained when stressed or in emergencies.

The studies also suggested that children with autism, although at a higher risk of drowning, would be less vulnerable because of structured and adaptive swim lessons.

Autism and swimming: a lifesaving skill for long-term health and happiness

Swimming is more than just a physical activity; it is a path to personal development, therapy, and a source of happiness for individuals with autism. That is why parents and caregivers of an autistic child should definitely consider swim lessons to ensure safety and empower autistic children with confidence and life skills that they will live within the years to come.

It is more than a life-saving skill; it is a holistic activity through which one can gain balance and fulfillment in life.

The water provides a calming environment where adults and children can escape the stresses of daily life and focus on their movements and breathing.

Swimming is flexible and adaptable, suitable for all ages and ability levels. Early swim lessons will develop a love for water and foster a balanced lifestyle for children with autism. The same is true for adults living with autism, as they can start swimming at any time, and the pool is the most inclusive environment that meets one's individual needs.

Whether you swim for relaxation, therapeutic purposes, socialization, or health, swimming is a versatile sport that addresses special needs in many, if not all, areas of life.

About Author

  • Dan Novikov
    NCAA All-American Champion
    USA Masters Champion
    Owner of NYC Swim School
    Dan is an accomplished All-American and USA Masters swimmer, bringing over ten years of coaching experience to the pool. As a dedicated swim coach, Dan has a proven track record of helping swimmers of all ages and abilities achieve their goals.
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