Aquatic Therapy consists of treatments and exercises performed in water for relaxation, fitness, physical rehabilitation, and other therapeutic benefit.
Laurie Jake, “Autism and the Role of Aquatic Therapy in Recreational Therapy Treatment Services” – “This pressure actually soothes and calms the children, providing the necessary sensory input they crave.”
An article by Hear Our Voices states that “a majority of clinicians reported a substantial increase in tolerating touch following aquatic therapy.”
Imagine a world where you did not see, hear, smell, feel and taste the way everyone else does; a world where lights and sounds bombard your senses.
This is often the world of Autism; it involves many cognitive consequences including; problems with verbal communication, concepts and explanations, literal understanding, delayed processing to name a few. Children with Autism often focus on detail, hey have trouble understanding causes and effects and are usually not able to understand the concept of time causing confusion when you have to deal with their organisational and sequencing demands. We are always looking for ways to keep them moving, not fixated on one thing for days, we try to incorporate as much as we can in their routine, making it flexible and recreational.
Recreational therapy can play a significant role in enhancing the quality of life and productivity of a child with Autism.
Among the vast range of interventions is one that we believe to be unique and very successful; aquatic therapy. Water activities provide autistic children with coordination and tactile input. As I’ve mentioned before, children with Autism have sensory difficulties, and are very easily distracted by these difficulties, whether it be because of pain, annoyance or fascination. There is an over or under reaction to stimuli in the environment they live in and have very strong reactions to certain textures, tastes, smells. We’ve found that water provides a safe and supported environment, which not only supports Chris, but also provides him with hydrostatic pressure that surrounds his body in the water. This pressure actually soothes and calms him, providing him with the necessary sensory input he craves. Aquatic activities are a fun and enjoyable experience that has many physical, psycho social, cognitive, and recreational advantages. Water is the ideal medium in which to exercise or rehabilitate the body; it’s an environment that reduces body weight by 90%, decreasing stress or impact on the body; and these are benefits for everyone!
For children with Autism aquatic therapy can be a play-based movement, improving range of motion, helping to facilitate neurodevelopmental growth, improved body awareness, increased balance, sensory integration, mobility skills and most importantly, having fun. The Aquatic Therapy and Rehabilitation Institute defines Aquatic Therapy as “The use of water and specifically designed activity by qualified personnel to aid in the restoration, extension, maintenance and quality of function for persons with acute, transient, or chronic disabilities, syndromes or diseases“.
With Chris, we found that the water (pool or beach) provides a safe environment for him; it feeds into his sensory demands and he is much more tolerating to touch. Another positive is that the energy required to swim around, move or the activities in the water helps with hyperactivity; which means that he is more cooperative, and has better concentration. Swimming can also help with developing social skills. Everyone makes a friend at a pool or a beach, whether is a ball gone astray or just curiosity. The point is that it puts Chris in a position where he is calm and therefore open to interaction. Now, if you use swimming as a therapy, which is highly recommended during the earlier years of development, social skills can be engaged in during group aquatic therapy sessions with specific skills targeted by a trained professional. Group sessions mean, not only having to work with the therapist, but with group mates; sharing toys and equipment, experience cooperation, initiating/maintaining eye contact as well as increased self-confidence promotes self-esteem, preparing them to successfully engage in interpersonal relations.
Parents, it may be scary thinking about it due to the significant safety risks when in the water; lack of response to verbal commands, and their distracted nature can be a big worry. But this is why it is important to incorporate swimming in their flexible routine from a young age. Leaving aside the numerous and obvious advantages, it is essential for them to be comfortable around water, alert and educated about the dos and don’t s. Exposing children with autism to aquatic therapy can evolve their swimming skills and their understanding of safety around water.
Living with Autism is a journey. We never stop learning, there’s always something you can do. So be creative, be brave, swim.