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Helping A Child with Sensory Issues Enjoy Swimming

All material Copyright 2011 Nancy Peske and Sensory Smart
Article reprinted with the express permission of the authors as it appears on her website.
By: Nancy Peske

photo credit: Kings & Queens

Editor’s Note: This article was written primarily for parents and caregivers of children with Sensory Processing Disorder. We include it here as an excellent resource that therapists may share with the parents and guardians of the kiddos they treat with SPD.
Are you caught in the “heat dome” as they’re calling it? Do you want your child to enjoy swimming but are finding she’s resistant due to sensory issues? The following is from a newsletter I created a while back, which will give you some ideas on how to make swimming, pools, and lakes more sensory friendly for your child with sensory processing disorder and/or autism.
Why is it that kids with sensory issues so often heartily take to swimming despite the sensory challenges that this activity can present? Perhaps it is because swimming offers sensory input they yearn for along with a sense of independence, and because many kids, neurotypical or not, just find it fun to splash around. As a sport, swimming allows a child to avoid competing with other children and instead compete against himself or herself. What is more, swimming is an important skill for anyone and great exercise.
But what if your child resists swimming or learning to swim? Here’s how to get around some of the swimming challenges sensory kids face so that they can truly enjoy the experience.
Smells. Chlorinated water has a powerful smell and lake water can have a distinct odor that may disturb some sensory kids. Check out your options, which may include swimming in a pool that is cleaned by an ozone generator or reverse osmosis method.
Noises and movement. Kids will often squeal, run, and splash near or in the water. For a child with auditory and visual processing differences, such unexpected and sharp sounds and movements from others can provoke anxiety. Outdoor pools and swimming areas at least crowded times may be more tolerable. Call the pool or waterpark ahead of time and ask when it’s least crowded.
Temperature. You may be surprised by your sensory child’s ability to tolerate the coldest water if he is eager to swim, but some kids with sensory issues may be very reluctant to enter a pool or water that is cold or is a very different temperature from the air. If your child will tolerate a shower beforehand, you might have her shower and gradually adjust the temperature to make it colder and prepare her for the chilly plunge. Teach her that she can get her feet in first, then splash water on to her arms, and gradually immerse all her body parts, giving her a sense of control over the feeling.
Getting his face wet. Very often, the biggest challenge for a child with sensory processing issues is to get her face (and eyes, or eyelids) wet. You can work on this at home in the tub or shower, slowly getting her used to the feeling by working with a shower head, a big cup for pouring water, and a washrag she holds over her face to slow down the feeling of her face becoming wet. Wearing goggles and masks often is very soothing to kids because these items keep the child’s eyes dry, help her see better in the water, and provide a nice amount of calming pressure against the back of the head. You may find that the child with sensory issues likes to wear goggles or a mask and swim underwater rather than on the surface where her face is alternately in and out of the water.
Suits and hair. Some kids can’t bear the feel of loose, floppy wet hair or suits. Fortunately, there are many options for swimwear and bathing caps, many of which are calmingly snug and yet stylish. Try the short-sleeve, snug, two-piece surfer suits for boys and girls which have the added benefit of protecting against harmful UV rays by providing more coverage.
Footwear. Walking on rough and even hot surfaces such as sidewalks, asphalt in parking lots, grass, sand, and cement near pools can feel excruciating to a sensory kid. Flip flops, sandals, and water shoes are likely to help, but also consider massaging your child’s foot providing deep pressure or even vibration from a vibrator or vibrating toy if that’s tolerable to him, before he sets foot on these surfaces. Park in the shade if you can (such as under a tree or awning) and walk where walking surfaces are likely to be cooler.
Motor planning. Swimming takes motor planning skills, which many sensory kids find challenging. Try private rather than group lessons, and look for an instructor who can break down strokes into various parts and who teaches in a way that your child can both understand and tolerate. For example, one instructor may instruct using touch while another may simply demonstrate and use words to describe physical motions. Sit in on a session if you can to see how your child is able to follow that particular instructor’s directions. You might also check out some of the instructional videos on YouTube to get ideas for helping your child learn to swim.
Overstimulation. Some kids may withdraw at the intensity of the swimming experience (especially at a crowded, indoor pool cleaned by chlorine, or a busy water park). However, some may get overstimulated and need lots of deep pressure input to “take it down a notch.” Hugging and gentle, subtle massage of limbs, wrapping the child in a tight towel, and breaks to go to a quieter, less stimulating area often help. You may need to inform the instructor that your child needs to wriggle a lot while waiting her turn for personal instruction or demonstrating her strokes; this activity may be necessary for your child to be able to focus once her turn comes.
Safety. Every pool or beach has safety rules. Find where they are posted and have your child read them aloud to you, or read them to her. While we may take for granted such “obvious” rules as “do not run on the wet surfaces” or “no diving in shallow areas,” your child will need to have them repeated for the rules to sink in, so take the time to read them with her. Then too, always err on the side of caution and never leave your child unsupervised near water even if he has floatation devices on him or near him (in fact, floating devices may provide a false sense of security). Know where your child is at all times and be sure there is a lifeguard on duty.
Have a wonderful swimming experience!
Kids with SPD, whether sensory seekers or sensory avoiders, may LOVE swimming!
Featured Contributor: Nancy Peske
Nancy Peske (right) is a freelance writer, editor, co-author of Raising a Sensory Smart Child, and the co-author of the Cinematherapy series which has sold over 270,000 copies and inspired a TV show on Women’s Entertainment. Formerly an editor in the trade division at HarperCollins, she has co-written, ghostwritten, and edited several bestselling books in the areas of spirituality, inspiration, health, and psychology. She lives in Shorewood, Wisconsin with her husband and son, diagnosed with SPD and several developmental delays.
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