Some children with autism have a fascination with water, a tendency to wander and little or no sense of danger, putting them much more at risk of drowning.
But a unique swimming program in Canberra — with a counterintuitive structure — has dived deep into the issue to turn the tragic tide.
Renee Zwikielberg has two children with autism — William, 9, and Sophie, 7 — and said she came frighteningly close to the tragedy of losing a child to drowning.
“We went on holiday about 18 months ago and William nearly drowned,” she said.
Ms Zwikielberg said they had tried many different types of swimming classes over the years from group settings to one-on-one lessons with instructors trained in teaching people with autism.
But she said it was not until William was enrolled in WaterAbilities at Black Mountain School that he made progress.
“At first, he didn’t even want to get in the water,” she said.
“He was afraid … and had a lot of anxiety about drowning given that it almost happened twice.”
But William has since thrived in the lessons, learning strokes, safety and how to enjoy the water.
And that’s also given Ms Zwikielberg confidence that her son would be safe around water.
“It’s really changed my life. I can’t stress that enough,” she said.
Strengthening exercises key to swimming success
The program’s unique composition involves spending as much time outside of the pool as in it.
The unconventional strategy has used land-based exercises that strengthen muscles and movements used for swimming well before participants try to thrash against the water.
Those strength-building exercises have been especially valuable for William’s little sister Sophie.
“Even at five, [Sophie] was what you would consider a floppy baby, but now her strength and her muscle tone has increased,” Ms Zwikielberg said.
Ele Fogarty has seen a similarly remarkable transformation in her son Flynn.
The five-year-old happily and safely dived underwater for the first time last week after a sensory condition had meant he previously became distressed if water — even from a shower — washed over his head.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” Ms Fogarty said.
“And he actually decided he’s going to do showers. They’re only small things but they’re massive.”
Drowning leading cause of death in children with autism
Carol Jennings co-founded the “holistic” pilot and said it was intentionally very different to mainstream swim schools.
“The whole team are allied health workers, so we draw on occupational therapy, exercise physiology, physiotherapy and early education, in addition to being swim school qualified,” Ms Jennings said.
According to Royal Life Saving Australia, children with autism are 160 per cent more likely to drown than those without.
And drowning is the leading cause of death for children with autism.
The ACT Government spent $15,000 on the trial, which was also supported by Royal Life Saving ACT.
Royal Life Saving ACT general manager Cherry Bailey said the disability community had been crying out for a solution like WaterAbilities.
“The demand was obvious and really important,” she said.
“We want these children to be experiencing the same types of program opportunities as children without autism.
“[The program] has provided really special connections for families and children in the water and provided focus points needed in terms of fundamental movement, development in the water and readiness to learn … water safety skills.”