Megan Mahoney is passionate about swimming. She thinks every child should have basic swimming survival skills, autistic or not. Mahoney, a teacher at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Edison, is collaborating with the YMCA of Metuchen, Edison, Woodbridge and South Amboy to offer a swim program for sixth- to eighth-graders from the middle school in her class who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Veronica Vargas, Administrative Assistant for the YMCA, said when Mahoney approached them asking if she could bring in her class for swimming lessons, they thought it was a great idea.
“She was also willing to get in the pool with them as she is a former certified lifeguard and a self-contained autistic teacher,” Vargas said.
All six of Mahoney's students are taking lessons.
Vargas said they are applying for a grant to help expand the program to other middle schools in the area and help fund economically disadvantaged kids.
“We intend to expand it to as many middle school children that we can in the surrounding areas,” she said.
She explained that the Thomas Edison children had run a coffee shop at school and were using the funds to offset costs for lessons.
“When I first started working with children with autism I learned that drowning is the number one cause of death," Mahoney explained. "I decided way back then, when I could, I wanted to work a swim program into my community-based instruction.”
Mahoney’s class has community-based instruction, which involves taking skills learned and practicing them in the classroom and applying them out in public.
Aquatics Director Danica Lindsey said they run the swim classes for autistic kids a little different than regular swim lessons.
"We have a lot of adults in the water, volunteers, so we can give them more one on one time,” she said.
She said they develop short- and long-term goals for the children, like one child might be afraid to put their face in the water, so the goal for the day might be to put his face in, whereas another kid might not want to get in, so a short-term goal would be to get him in, and a long-term goal would be for him to walk in the water.
Lindsey explained that with autistic kids, the swim instructors are more soft-spoken and try to make lots of eye contact with the children, so that they are focusing on them. She added that they are looking for more volunteers to go in the water and keep them on task.
“Ideally, we would like them all to have survival swimming skills, like the ability to doggy paddle and swim independently,” she said.
She said that there wasn’t actual training that she knew of for people to teach autistic kids to swim, but “I have been here for 10 years, and we have a special-needs class, so I have gained a lot of experience with working with all kinds of children.”
Mahoney said her “students absolutely love it. Most of them have a hard time communicating, but when swimming day is coming, they all get off the bus in the morning asking me 'Swimming day?' The aquatics director, Danica, has set up individual goals for them based upon their prior swim experience. For some kids, the goal is to swim an entire lap, and for others it’s putting their face in the water. Just in two trips, I've already seen improvement.”
In her grant application Vargas said, “While the YMCA offers swimming lessons to special education children of all ages, we feel that offering a separate program targeted for school-aged special education classrooms would be very successful, because the children know and feel comfortable with each other. When introducing a new activity in a new environment, offering familiarity is prudent and will help them assimilate more quickly. Another benefit is that their special education teacher and her assistant who they know and trust will be joining the children in the pool during the swimming lesson. The special education teacher from this particular class is a former certified lifeguard, which is a twofold benefit.”
Vargas added that the YMCA has long been a proponent of teaching children with special needs how to swim. She said children with autism are drawn to water and rates of drowning are very high. In the grant application, she states, “In fact, 91% of deaths in children with autism are due to drowning. Children with autism have an ardent interest in being in and around water; most likely because water can be very calming on sensory overloads, a common problem in autistic children. Swimming is very therapeutic for them, brings confidence, coordination and reduces anxiety, and also gives them a great way to exercise and enjoy the water.”
“We want to help as many children diagnosed with autism as we can learn to swim,” she said.
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