Reflections of and on a probably Asperger's parent parenting an Asperger's kid (or 2)!

dragon pups

dragon pups

Sunday, July 15, 2012

On SPD and Swimming

ok - so this is actually a short prelude - I think I need to collect my thoughts and do a several statements of the relationship between these 2 ideas. 

The gist is that they are RELATED.  Once again it seems like the ribbons of my life are woven in a solid image, creating a True Path of Insight instead of just fluttering around waiting to be picked up...

I have been instructing swimming for 3 years now (formally) and have an American Red Cross (ARC) Water Safety Instructor (WSI) certification.  All that has combined with my previous teaching experience (classroom as well as challenge course) and parenting experience to bring me to a place where I see the process of learning & teaching swimming in a vocabulary I am not hearing elsewhere.

There are certain behaviors that are common to children (and adults) who struggle to swim.  They have trouble tolerating certain sensations - like water in the eyes, or floating on their backs, or jumping in...  these behaviors are COMMON, expected even.  Most of the strategies that are suggested in WSI training include offering the students visuals/ descriptions of what their body should look like/ do.

But I think it is MORE than that.  Sensory Processing is about REGULATION - about incremental building of stimuli to create a habit of tolerance.  It takes a LONG time, and you have to teach your own body.  [It's really very Montessori in philosophy - the "teacher" is creating an environment where the student teaches themselves through experience.] Teaching swimming is EXACTLY that.  When you become a WSI they give you a Performance Standard by which to progress students through levels.  They make it clear that students will often "stall out" at a particular level and have to take it several times to "pass" it.  At first I thought "What a racket!", but then I realized I was buying into that private school mentality that if I pay for a product I expect to receive it.  [I have had that experience as a teacher: The parent has paid lots of good money for their child to have an exclusive education, how dare I send home a report card that does not indicate their achievement?]  

But it's really about that "Montessori" realization that the body and the mind must meet for us to observe "success" / mastery - and that happens at a different pace for EVERYONE.  

The Body an Mind must meet.... sounds like a "sensory processing" process to me.

Water/ swimming/ submersion is an "alien" environment - it creates sensations for ALL people that are "alien" to our daily living - in particular it significantly impacts the tactile, vestibular and propioceptive sensations and processing.  

The strength of SPD, for me, is that it provides me a language, a vocabulary with which to identify and then address challenges.  And I don't just mean that it allows me to identify what's "wrong with you"..., I mean that it allows me to explore my own experiences, compare them to others, see and label minute facets, and then verbalize that understanding - it allows me (the teacher) to identify with you (the learner) so that we can put a name to those unknowns that are the starting point for fear.  

And fear WILL kill you in the water.  If you cannot relax and trust the water to support you, you WILL sink.  It is ONLY when the body is relaxed that we can float.

And once we identify with each other, we can find common ground - I can tell you what strategies helped me, and we can observe together if those strategies help you, or if they helped someone else, or compare them to what your instincts are leading you to do, and the natural physics that drives the physical reality that is coming to the senses...  We can work incrementally to create a series of successes that help the learner gain confidence in their ability to conquer their body.

Let's just work on getting water in the eyes... let's work on just getting the feet off the ground... Let's work on just the kick rolling the hips...  let's work on cupping the hands so you feel the water pushing past your hips... Let's work on just getting water in the ears...

All these are SENSATIONS - so they MUST be about sensory processing.  Moreover - they are only achievable with body readiness/ developmental readiness.  A person has to be able to feel where their hand is in order to make it push the water (propioceptive) - they have to "find" themselves - and THEN they can build endurance, habit, skill....

We, the parents, the community, have a responsibility to create an environment where safe learning and exploration can take place.  I read recently that 92% of autism wandering deaths are drownings... we need to ACTIVELY take responsibility for teaching/ treating/ "therapizing" that skill - TO SAVE LIVES!  

And it doesn't just mean just in public!  

Once you have clearly identified sensory inputs that will support swimming skills - YOU CAN PRACTICE THEM IN THE BATH TUB!!!!!  

Just like Sensory Integration Therapy (SIT) - it needs to be incremental and consistent - happening ALL the time EVERYWHERE. 

And just like every other "therapy" or learning opportunity that we are striving to provide for our kids - it's not really about skill mastery, it's about self mastery - to make their personal universe bigger...


  1. O how i wish you were local to me! I struggled to find WSI's for our Chapter Learn to Swim program! LOL
    This really is a great post; ironically i have also wanted to discuss the "fearless" aspect of water with one of our aquatics supervisors!
    My 1yo DS wants nothing to do with bathing but adores large (adult size home) pools. He refuses (frantic meltdown) his lifejacket or canopy float. (nothing "restraining") and will fight to get away from DH & myself when we bring him in w/ us. (but is too delighted to be there to meltdown) if that makes sense?
    i understand at this age he is gaining his independence but it is so difficult to convey safety or swim instruction when he's squirming to swim on his own.
    any suggestions :D

  2. I would say first - that you just have to continue to prate and demonstrate water safe behaviors - because repetition DOES work, even on the most stubborn mule ;)I would say secondly, to not worry about teaching "swimming" - to focus on being comfortable with those water induced sensations. I have had one little (a youngest of 3) who is TOTALLY fearless and just keeps walking in til he sinks - and we have to watch him like a hawk, - but we also have to be sure NOT to inhibit his willingness to explore and assimilate those sensations. Thirdly, I would say - focus on SMALL steps/ developments - find the action/ sensation your child is repeating and just do it with them (mirroring), so they can compare their "success" with yours and refine their movement. In typical Montessori fashion, just let the kid do what their body is telling them to repeat, because they are teaching themselves and eventually they will move to the next piece/ skill. It may take a LONG time - 3 summers for my kiddo to get horizontal in the water (vestibular avoidance), but he got there! And it started NOT in the pool, but on the playground - with a willingness to SWING. Use YOUR language to associate the sensations, help them develop confidence - they don't have that full vocabulary, yet.


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