Now Reading: How We Taught Our Severe / Non Verbal Autistic Son To Swim

How We Taught Our Severe / Non Verbal Autistic Son To Swim

How We Taught Our Severe / Non Verbal Autistic Son To Swim

(originally written & published on August 17, 2012)

After posting pics this week from our lake vacation of my son jumping off the high dock into the water, a lot of people have asked how we taught our 9 year old severe/non verbal ASD son to swim. Here’s the short answer.

When he was younger he really had no fear and he would just walk into any body of water, no matter how cold or deep. We (mom & dad) would stop him because (a) he would swallow the water on purpose and (b) we aren’t strong swimmers and we were afraid that he would go in too deep and not know what to do.

When the king was about 5? we signed him up for one on one special needs swim lessons offered by a near by YWCA for an extemely fair price.

So one Saturday morning we gave our kid over to his first swim instructor, a big/tough 40something gentle giant named Noel.

We told Noel that our son wasn’t afraid at all but swallowed a lot of water. Noel proceeded to have him jump off the diving board into 10 feet of water…in the first lesson.

We were flabbergasted. Our kid could swim! Ok, not swim with purpose. He doesn’t do much with purpose. But he could tread water / doggie paddle like nobody’s business. And he got the concept of holding his breath and coming up for air right away.

And the swallowing water? Noel said, “he’ll learn if we just force him too…” And after a few lessons with Noel and a few strange colored pee-pees he cut down on the drinking dramatically.

We had Noel for one glorious year and then, poof, he was gone and the king has had a few other one one one YWCA instructors since then. The Sunday morning Y swim lesson is now a staple in his life. But none of the instructors were as good or as tough and bold as Mr Noel.

And has the king made a ton of progress in his swimming over the past 4 years? Not really. He is still a great swimmer, but he doesn’t love it as much as he once did. You could say that he used to be OBSESSED with swimming. He would stay in the pool for as long as he could, no matter how cold the water.

Now he’s a bit more typical in a way. He gets cold in the water very fast and wants to get out…or he isn’t in the mood. Or he just wants to do flips, or swim to the bottom.

But he can still doggie paddle crazy good. When I’m in the deep end with him I’m kicking my legs like crazy to stay afloat and I look over at the king and he’s just moving his legs ever so slightly, exerting very little energy to stay afloat. It’s crazy! I started using a noodle in the deep end just to keep up with him.

So mommy still plans his weeks with at least 2-3 pool visits a week, even in the winter.

Besides the Sundays at the Y, our son also gets a one to one OT (occupational therapy) session in a pool on Tuesday afternoons, after school. We pay out of pocket for this and get reimbursed 70% thru my insurance company…when they feel like it.

The OT has been great and really worked on getting him to follow directions and has started trying to get him to swim in a straight line. When he’s motivated he could be swimming laps. But keeping him motivated is always the problem with the king.

We have visions of seeing him in the special Olympics one of these days. But he’s gotta learn swimming in a straight line first. But we want to keep swimming fun for him. Because once it becomes “work” in his mind he’ll probably shut down.

So for now we have a 9 year old who can swim better than his mom and dad (although that’s not saying much) and really enjoys it, when the stars are aligned and it’s not too cold and he doesn’t want to do something else, like stim in the sand.

And for now we are fine with this. And we are thrilled that we’ve found something that our son excels in and is maybe more advanced at than a typical 9 year old.

I said in a Facebook post once awhile back that there’s 2 things the king does better than his typical peers, swim and take pills.

Now if only taking pills was a Special Olympics event.



Written by

Frank Campagna

I’m a 48 year old neurotypical dad with a 14 year old son with severe, non-verbal autism & epilepsy. I created this blog to rant about autism & epilepsy while celebrating my son who I affectionately call “the king” :-).

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26 People Replies to “How We Taught Our Severe / Non Verbal Autistic Son To Swim”

  1. JP

    any tips for bike riding? My 9 yr old Aspie son is a wizz with the razor scooter but he can’t get the bike down and it frustrates him. He says its ok- he doesn’t mind just doing the scooter, but today he admitted he’s scared. I feel bad, we’ve tried in the past but we all just gave up. Any tips for teaching bike riding to an older kid. I am tempted to take him to one of those group learn to ride events at a local park.

  2. Anonymous

    My son is 8 and does something we call swim drowning. He can swim a 25yd lap without
    touching the bottom or holding onto the lane ropes….but it isn't pretty. Because he can do that he is now swimming with my daughters year round USA swimming team. He is so flipping motivated to swim! He attends and listens to the coaches. He gives 100% the entire time…did I mention its not pretty though. Anyway they are so excepting and supportive of him. I cant ask for anything more. He is doing something he loves !!
    He was diagnosed at 20 months and has started to develop language the last 2 years.

  3. My daughter is 9 yrs old and has Autism…she is also non verbal. She taught herself to swim in about 9 hours of pool time because we forgot her life vest ONCE. She also was not scared of going in the water….so we had to take her out and SHOW her she could go under the water. (that was at age 3 or 4) So then she wouldn't leave the steps with out some sort of flotation device. So we made her wear her life vest all the time when we were near the water. But forgot her life vest once on vacation and now she won't wear it at all. So I got her a swim instructor as well because I wanted to know if she taking enough air down with her and if her swimming style was good enough. Well the instructor said she was doing great…the only thing she needs is to learn to use her arms more. She is great at flipping on her back and kicking when she gets tired – and she is treading water really good. She loves going under the water which was what scared me. So glad to have the instructors view on her though.

  4. When people ask whether my son (17 years old, ASD) can swim I answer, "Yes, it isn't elegant, but functional," a phrase that can apply to so many of his skills. And you know what? I'll take it.

  5. Thank God for Mr. Noe & way to go Kyle. Woot Woot!

  6. My son is 7 and minimally verbal, if he really wants something or he is having a oanic attack. I swam through college and I always pictured my kuds loving swim team how I did…they love to swim…just not in a lane or in a line…or be on a swim team. I was also a water safety instruction from 18-26 and I taught special needs kids….I had my son a yr later and we are on this crazy Autism train called life. Great job Kyle

  7. Anonymous

    So inspiring….

  8. Anonymous

    I have taught several ASD kids to swim. The first thing (assuming no fear issues) is showing them the deep (letting them jump in and pulling them out if they sink) so they know what the deep is. Then it's a game of come get me starting at 2 inches and working out, giving prompts/hints as needed. Before you know it, we're playing tag across the deep.

    qaz at earthling dot net

  9. Beans isn't as profecient as Kyle, and totally still drinks the pool up lol, but I think if he had to, he could get himself up above water for a short amount of time. It's taken a long time, but he is pretty much teaching himself to swim. There really was no other way to do it, because teaching something like swimming takes a lot of imitation skills my son doesn't have. So, I have done it pretty similar to the way Noel taught your son. Take him to deep water, and help him figure it out. During the summer we spend hours at the pool. Beans is truly happy in the water. Thanks for sharing! I love reading about other like my Beans!

  10. Anonymous

    Wow funny how many of our autistic sons are the same about water, Brian always wore a life vest in deep end, when he was 7 or 8 one day at a hotel he wanted it off. then he goes to jump in deep end, I'm thinking it may be a good lesson about fear of water, as I could pull him out easily. Damn if he couldn't swim just fine. Pills, when little he would not take them, since about 10 or so it hasn't been a problem. We did used to go to a compounding pharmacy, they can take almost any prescription and put it in a syrup, either bubble gum or grape. Worked like a charm when Brian would not take pills.

  11. Anonymous

    My Twins are 7 and still obsessed with swimming! They were the same way with swimming. It came very very natural and easy like a pair of the cutest fish ever!

    Carrie Harmon
    Covington, La

  12. When Jon was three, we wanted a pool so terribly, but wouldn't get one because he was exactly like Kyle…a water magnet. That winter, we decided that this was the exact reason why we NEEDED a pool; so he could learn to swim. We installed one the next spring. His first plunge was a scary one; he nearly drowned himself and his sister, just a year older. However, he quickly got the hang of swimming and now can swim better than me and his dad, too. Raised on the lake, I'm a damn good swimmer myself, but Jon trumps me. He's 12 now and still won't do the straight line swim. Special Olympics was our dream too since we know how well he swims. But, he sees it as a field trip with an opportunity to play in the pool. So, that's what it is, playtime. I can now let him go out in the pool to swim, though, and relax without worrying he will drown. Sometimes, on those 100 degree Alabama summer days, I sit in the kitchen and read your blog while I watch him on our security camera. He's good. He's a great swimmer, it's five feet and he's 5'6" but I still watch like a hawk.

  13. Anonymous

    My son discovered his trick for taking pills when he was about 8- pull part a mini marshmallow and put pill in the middle then surround the pill (like a hotdog bun). The saliva in your mouth makes it slippery and much easier to swallow. Now he's 16 and still uses this method.
    He's also fearless around water in pools but more hesitant at the beach. We tried swim lessons when he was about 6 before we knew a dx, but he had a hard time following specific strokes. He had his own 'style' and loves swimming on the bottom of the pool. In middle school his PE teacher said he was the best pool cleaner they ever had because he would bring everything up from the bottom…!! He has to have swim goggles – he hates getting water in his eyes!

  14. My boys are the same way about swimming. It makes me so happy! Now if they could just take medicine in ANY form. Tylenol suppositories, anyone?

  15. Anonymous

    my son was the same way when he learned to swim. He has no fear and loved to be in the water I am a strong swimmer and have taught kids to swim, but I am not a professional. I taught all 3 of my kids to swim by the age 5, we lived at the lake so I knew I could not stop them from going. My middle son does flips off the diving boards. All of my kids go to a water park durnig the summmer and have been to the big ones in Dallas TX. As for teaching a child to swollow a pill: I made my daughter put it in her mouth and drink water. she finially learned to swollow them that was. My daughter is "normal" my oldest is PDD and my middle son is legally blind in one eye.

  16. My son did the same thing! I had him wearing a suit that had a float device in it until he was 7 (it was MUCH too small too, LOL) I took it off one day and he jump in and swam! I was floored! He can swim just fine in a pool, but we had a VERY scary incident in the Ocean!

  17. Angie Even

    Well I am new to your blog, but of the ones I have read, I am becoming more certain that we have the same child with few differences except mine is 8 years old. It is oddly refreshing to be able to hear from someone else who goes through many of the same things we do. Thank you. Maybe one day we will meet at the special Olympic swimming and pill taking competitions!

  18. Anonymous

    Yes please help me my son won't take medicine.
    He also has epilepsy

    1. Anonymous

      we started with small pieces of grapes first …. only 3 per/day. 2 or 3 days later, he said he was ready. Every day(with grapes first) he had a reward for trying 3 pieces of grapes … he chose his reward from 3 options I gave him based on his interests (a pieces of candy, 10 minutes of computer or video game time, or small toy from dollar store )

    2. Anonymous

      mine either, he eats anything we put in his mouth, so bitter tasting pills are awful…
      i open capsules and mix with either yogurt, applesauce…etc
      for very bitter pills, i used to crush them, then mix the powder in chocolate sauce or nutella, or honey, anything appealing to the individual. a pharmacist once told me the trick to mask the most bitter pill taste is chocolate sauce and maraschino cheeries juice!!!

  19. Anonymous

    How did you teach him to swallow pills?

  20. Since he gets cold so quickly, it might be worth investing in a wetsuit of some kind. A lot of my NT kids get cold so quickly, yet refuse to leave the pool, so we invested in a wetsuit of sorts to keep them warmer.

  21. shawna

    My 10 year old (who seems very much like your son) has never had swim lessons but is totally amazing in the pool. He swims like he is a dolphin. He just moves his body and legs to move. He can stay under water for a long period of time. It is really cool to watch.

    I love reading your posts and how you just throw it all out there! You're awesome!

  22. Amber

    My son was very interested in the diving and gymnastics portions of the Olympics. He now tries some funny looking jumps into our pool. I'm waiting to see if he attempts a handstand dive!

  23. Anonymous

    Raye in CB here, our guy was the same, no fear of water a few scares. A few years ago he indicated he wanted to take off his life jacket, we were in an indoor pool so I thought well, what the heck at least we will know and can save him here rather than tring this in the ocean. What a swimmer he is and his little sister is a fish. He copies her and jumps under water, does rolls and back floats. A good ability to have since we live on an island:) Some times our kids just amaze us…. now what I need to know is what is the trick to pills? Cause that is one thing our 12 year old does not get….

  24. My son does a mean Doggy-paddle too! It's wonderful to see them having so much fun, isn't it? 🙂