The Benefits of Swimming for Autism Spectrum Disorder

Children with autism spectrum disorder may not get enough physical activity in their daily lives. Many physical activities that children at young ages engage in are team sports, such as soccer. Children with autism spectrum disorder may have difficulty handling competitiveness, learning strategies to participate effectively, and communicating and socializing with their peers. These difficulties can cause children with an autism spectrum disorder to avoid these kinds of activities and, in turn, not get enough physical activity. Parents of children with autism spectrum disorder diagnosis often seek ways to get their child involved in a somewhat social physical activity. One activity that is conducive to children, even with developmental disabilities, is swimming. Swimming is an activity that can be done individually and in groups, making it an accessible activity for children with autism spectrum disorder as swimming is not dependent on learning specific game strategies and communicating heavily with other group participants. One study examined the efficacy of a group aquatic exercise program on a child with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis’s fitness and swimming skills. This blog post discusses the effectiveness of a group aquatic exercise program on fitness and swimming skills for children with an autism spectrum disorder.

The Study

The study conducted by Fragala-Pinkham, Haley, & O’Neill (2011) involved 12 children between the ages of 6-12 years old. 7 children had a diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and 5 children were neurotypical. The children were involved in a 14-week swimming program that met twice per week for 40 minutes per session. In the swimming sessions, children performed aerobic, muscular strength, and endurance exercises with other children and support staff. Children were assessed for swimming ability, cardiovascular fitness, mobility, and a satisfaction survey. Children without autism spectrum disorder carried on their normal activities during this period. 

Researchers found that children and the parents of the children with autism spectrum disorder had many positive responses to the swimming program. Children who participated in the swimming intervention improved their swimming abilities; however, no significant changes occurred in their cardiovascular fitness or mobility. This is due to the program’s structure, as the swimming sessions were not highly intensive. Children often spent time in the pool floating or swimming slowly, which does not provide the same benefits as moderate-intensity swimming. However, the researchers theorized that further physical benefits would be seen if the swimming program was more intensive.

How does Swimming Help in the Long Run?

Swimming requires a lot of cognitive focus; moving your arms and legs while floating can distract a child with an autism spectrum disordered from repetitive negative behaviors. The physical skills needed to swim require a significant amount of concentration and energy. Parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder noted that they did see a decrease in their child’s hyperactivity after swimming. 

Swimming is a public activity that allows many people to participate in and be near each other. This activity’s closeness may allow children with an autism spectrum disorder to become more comfortable with social situations and other people. As a result, children will learn how to engage with others, have a mutual thing to discuss with other children, and have safe environments to practice their social skills.

Is Sensory a Problem?

Swimming can be made accessible to children with special sensory needs by providing them. Get these items to help with any sensory issues. 

      1. Proper fitting goggles
      2. A wetsuit to prevent sensitivity to temperature changes going into and coming out of the pool
      3. Earplugs for noise reduction
      4. Flotation support should a child need it.

Where can I find a Swimming Program for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Some community pools may have programs already established. Parents and therapists can check with their local community center to see what activities and programs are available for children with autism. Summer programs and school year programs are also available, but they may be run through different organizations, so make sure to check local swimming clubs as well. Getting a child with autism involved in an activity program can help them exercise and practice social skills which can help them make friends and communicate with their peers. Exercise can also help children feel more confident and encourage positive behavior.

Fragala-Pinkham, M. A., Haley, S. M., & O’neil, M. E. (2011). Group swimming and aquatic exercise programme for children with autism spectrum disorders: a pilot study. Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 14(4), 230-241.
Autism and Swimming: Children with Autism Can Benefit From Physical Activity.” Activities for Children with Autism and the Benefits of Physical Activity. Web.
Christine Campbell

Christine is HappyNeuron Pro’s Marketing Specialist. People with intellectual disabilities have a special place in her heart. Growing up with a sibling with an autism diagnosis and intellectual disability influenced the way she views life. She is passionate about educating people about health and sharing cognitive tips.

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