The pool at Misericordia University is your average college swimming pool. It’s home to many water polo matches, swimming races and various rounds of Marco Polo. But on Wednesday evenings, it’s home for something special – swim lessons for those on the autism spectrum.
Meet Emma, a seven-year-old with autism who’s learning to swim. She says she enjoys being in the water.
“I swim very good,” Emma Gronski said. “And I also really dive very really good.”
Emma’s swimming lessons are taught by Hailey, a sophomore at Misericordia University. This semester, there are 19 other children with autism learning to swim. They’re doing so under the guidance of students on the university’s swim team.
“They’re so fun to work with,” said Hailey Gianoni. “They’re always like so optimistic. They brighten your day up.”
“These are students who are looking to work with this population so they’re getting some real-life experience,” said Kristin Hoffman, the Director of the Autism Center at Misericordia University.
The National Autistic Society says children with autism can have difficulty processing sensory information. While swimming lessons are common for children, Kristin Hoffman says there’s an even more urgent reason for autistic children to learn how to maneuver through the water.
“Drowning is actually the number one cause of the reason individuals with autism die,” Hoffman said. “And that’s a major problem because they’re often very attracted to the water because it’s a positive sensory stimulating experience.”
An organization called SAFE, which stands for Supporting Autism in Families Everywhere, funds the swimming lessons at misericordia through a grant.
“We decided as an organization that this needed to be something on the forefront,” said Eileen Perchak, the Executive Director of SAFE.
The swimming lessons began last fall with two sessions and have continued into the spring semester. Swimming also has other benefits for children for children with autism.
“Children and individuals with autism really struggle with social skills and how to connect with others,” said Hoffman. “So providing a fun atmosphere like swimming, it gives them an opportunity to do something that they’re already comfortable with and to meet other people.”
The students were taught by a doctoral student who developed a curriculum on teaching individuals with autism how to swim. Students say children on the autism spectrum can also have trouble verbalizing themselves, for example wanting to play.
“So when we’re here, there are a couple of us, we work with the children saying ‘would you like to play’ or ‘my name is so and so would you like to play.’ And giving them that skill can allow them when they’re at home to use that,” said Bobby Kennedy, an occupational therapy student at Misericordia University.
Emma’s dad, Timothy, says although he hasn’t noticed a difference in Emma’s social skills, the lessons still help.
“She’s always pretty happy but I think it’s a good environment for her to see a lot of different things that are out there,” he said.
The lessons aren’t just a helpful environment for the children, they also can help parents and families. Hoffman says having a child with autism can be very isolating for families. She tells me they may avoid going out in public situations because their kids’ behaviors can be so extreme.
“This is a really safe place for them to come where if their child does, you know, have a meltdown or some difficulty with what’s going on, none of the parents are looking at them to judge them,” Hoffman added.
Timothy Gronski agrees.
“It’s a great thing to network with them and just share some experiences and stories with them,” he said.
The program is held every Wednesday from 6:30 pm to 8pm. The kids spend half an hour with an instructor and have the opportunity to do some recreational swimming with members from the Misericordia Cougars for Autism Awareness Club. Organizers from SAFE say they’ve noticed a change in the children’s swimming abilities.
“The kids can start off with being afraid to go into the water and in a couple weeks they’re swimming, and you know learning the strokes and everything else,” said SAFE Director of Operations, Peggy Durako. “So it’s been a really really awesome program.”