I love to swim, and grew up spending almost all of my childhood summer breaks at the local swimming pool every day. (It was a small town. There wasn’t much else to do.) When I got older, my parents bought a boat and we spent many summer weekends water skiing on a tiny, man-made lake in northwestern Ohio. I have been comfortable in the water for as long as I can remember. I looked forward to swimming with my children when they were old enough, but of course, this didn’t go as I imagined. Like pretty much all of parenting.
Soon after SB’s diagnosis, I learned about an excellent program our county offers in the local recreation centers. It’s called Adapted Aquatics, and it is a swim class for kids with special needs. There is one teacher for the class, but more importantly, there is a volunteer for each kid in the class. Every child gets individual attention for the entire 30 minute class. I enrolled SB at age 2 ½, and when we got to the pool on the first day, he was absolutely TERRIFIED! He screamed and cried throughout every class for the entire 8 week session. The volunteers were always kind and nurturing, and didn’t make him do anything except cling to their neck while they walked around in the water. But he absolutely hated it. A normal mom probably would have not made him go to all 8 classes after he behaved this way. And a normal mom CERTAINLY would not have signed him up for another session. But I’m not a normal mom. I’m persistent, and cruel! I really do have a couple of rational reasons for being this persistent and cruel. The first one is that I feel it is really important for children to learn how to swim for their own safety. What if a child grows up afraid of water, and then one day accidentally falls into a pool or lake and has no idea what to do? The other reason is that one of the things we have learned about SB is that he ALWAYS needs to be pushed. This child would do absolutely nothing with his day except sit in a corner and stim with his fingers if we didn’t push him. Hard. All the time. So we always keep pushing.
When it was time for the second session of the Adapted Aquatics swimming class to start, neither my husband nor I was available to take SB to the first class. I was on a tour with the Air Force Band and Charlie was judging All-District Band auditions, so my father-in-law got nominated to do it. We warned him that SB would probably cry, and that it might be kind of distressing. For some strange, magical reason, SB LOVED swim class that day! I don’t know if it was the fact that his grandfather was there, or he had just finally become used to being in the pool, but he had a great time and was happy. He certainly didn’t let go of the volunteer or get his head wet, but a happy mood while in the water was major progress.
SB continued on this way for four more years. Every Saturday we went to swim class, and he always had a great time. But after four years, I was starting to get disappointed in his lack of progress. The class continued to be positive, and I was grateful for that, but I was kind of hoping that after all this time, he might be…you know…swimming! But the experience hadn’t changed one bit. He got in the pool with the volunteer willingly, but clung to her neck like a barnacle clings to a rock. He was not willing to float, hold onto a kickboard or noodle, or get his head even remotely close to the surface of the water. We finally realized that the volunteers were sweet and dedicated, but weren’t going to push him in the way he needed to be pushed to make any progress. So we left Adapted Aquatics and decided to take private swimming lessons.
SB started private lessons at age 6, and they seemed to go pretty well. He didn’t make tons of progress, but he was willing to go into the water, and the instructor got him to at least do a few different things. She didn’t push him particularly hard, but she DID push him. This was about the time that my husband and I realized that SB had taken most of our time, energy, and attention since his diagnosis 4 years earlier. We had been so absorbed in getting him the right therapies, classes, and other activities that we had kind of neglected poor little AB, now age 4. Why hadn’t we enrolled AB in some sort of swimming lesson as well? We had no reasonable answer, so after about 6 months, AB joined his older brother in the private swimming lesson. And we quickly realized that he was kind of in the same place as his brother: willing to get into the water, but unwilling to let go of the teacher in deep water or get his head wet. I was really hoping that the private lesson would get them both swimming independently, but over a year later, we still hadn’t seen a lot of progress in that area.
During the summer of 2012, we enrolled both boys in the swim team at our local pool. This swim team has a program called the “Minis,” where the teenage swim team members work with kids that are too young to actually compete on the swim team. Our daycare provider recommended it, because her son had done it the summer before and had become a lot more comfortable in the water over the course of the summer. Since the Minis met 5 days a week, we hoped that our guys might make more rapid progress then having a lesson once a week. With our trip to Disney World coming soon, we also offered the guys “Disney Dollars” for putting their heads underwater. The Disney Dollars were just slips of paper that they could acquire for a variety of good behaviors and then spend on souvenirs during our vacation. And it did work – for AB. By the end of the summer, AB was willingly putting his head underwater and showing no more fear. He still had a long way to go to actually learn to use his arms and legs to swim, but the progress was significant. SB, again, didn’t really make any progress. He spent most of the practices walking around in chest-deep water and talking with the teenagers, who didn’t really seem to know what to do with him. How could they? We didn’t know, either.
When summer was over, we continued with the weekly private lessons. And like most things with SB, the progress was so slow that we didn’t even notice it. But it was there. I went back to graduate school last fall, and Charlie took the boys to swimming lessons most of the time, giving me time to do school work. But I took the kids to their lesson last Saturday for the first time in probably months, and I was AMAZED at what I saw. With a foam noodle tied around their waists, both boys were floating and kicking all over the place in deep water. Let me say that again: SB was FLOATING ALL BY HIMSELF! As in, not touching another human being in water that was too deep for him to stand up. I was so amazed and thrilled that I started taking pictures. My husband confirmed that it has only been in the last 2 months or so that he has shown this much independence. AB is very comfortable putting his head in the water, and SB is starting to do it a few times per lesson. They still have a way to go before they are actually swimming independently, but both have made big breakthroughs, and I am so excited.
Swimming lessons are normally at the South Run Recreation Center near our house, but since there was a swim meet at South Run on Saturday, we had to go to the Audrey Moore Recreation Center instead, and my guys had never been to this pool before. I realize that this change in location might upset many kids with autism, but thankfully, mine were more curious than upset. I was asked many, many questions that I could not answer before we arrived, such as: What floor is the pool on? (The first) How deep is the deepest part of the pool? (13 feet) How many traffic lights will we go through to get there? (18). When we approached the front desk (which is on the second floor of the building), I saw a sign announcing that the elevator was out of service. I pointed this out to SB right away, because I knew it would be distressing for him. “What!?!?!” he exclaimed. “We can’t use the elevator?!?! Where is it? I want to see it! Oh no, I can’t believe the elevator is out of service!!!” Since he needed to get changed for his lesson, I promised him that we would find the elevator after his lesson. It was very important to him to find out where it was, what color it was (blue), and if it had one or two doors (one), even if we could not use it. Learning all of this information about the elevator seemed to satisfy his curiosity and he made peace with the fact that we could not ride it.
The extra bonus to having a swim lesson at Audrey Moore is that this rec center just happens to have an outdoor skate park! And even though it is January in Virginia, there were tons of teenagers skateboarding and biking up and down the ramps, over and over again. Both AB and SB had a fabulous time watching. I asked them if they wanted to come back sometime with their bikes, but they both said no. It does look a little bit intimidating, but maybe when the weather is warmer I will pack their bikes in the van and take them anyway. I guess I will forever be the cruel mommy who is always pushing, pushing, pushing!