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Adaptive swim class builds confidence and safety skills for autistic children

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Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center
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A new adaptive swim class led by researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center teaches swimming and water safety to children on the autism spectrum who are at increased risk of accidental drowning.

Ohio State University researchers are expanding a pilot program that offers personalized swimming and water safety sessions for autistic children.

For a child on the autism spectrum, swimming can be intimidating and dangerous. But a pilot study that delivered personalized aquatic occupational therapy for 19 autistic children has proven successful and will nearly double the amount of kids it serves over the next year.

Researchers at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center and College of Medicine say initial results show that the lessons improved swimming skills but also helped build physical, behavioral and social competency that goes beyond the pool. The individualized instruction makes a difference according to Erika Kemp, clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy at Ohio State’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

"What's their best mode of learning, what type of person should they be paired with, do they need visuals or reinforcers, all of those kinds of things can be embedded which makes this program unique," Kemp continued. "It's not just focused on swim skills but also the instructional and behavioral needs of each child."

Sarah Cline's four-year-old son, Cooper, participated in the adaptive swim program.

"He'll actually hop by himself in the shallow end of the pool," Cline said. "He can pull himself in and out of the water. He can put on flippers and kick his legs and move his arms. He's been willing to jump off the edge if someones catches him. As a mom, it makes me feel a lot more comfortable taking him around water because he's safer and happier, which makes me happy."

Kemp and her team are expanding their research and the adaptive swim program with the goal of implementing similar options to help autistic children safely experience the joy of swimming.

For more information about the aquatic occupational therapy study for autistic children, or to find out if your child qualifies, contact Erika Kemp at Erika.Kemp@osumc.edu.

Mike Foley joined WCBE in February 2000, coming from WUFT in Gainesville, Florida. Foley has worked in various roles, from producing news and feature stories to engineering Live From Studio A sessions. A series of music features Foley started in 2018 called Music Journeys has grown into a podcast and radio show. He also assists in developing other programs in WCBE's Podcast Experience.