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Using Constant Time Delay To Teach Swimming To Children And Adults On The Autism Spectrum

Our research and teaching has showed us that swimming is highly therapeutic and satisfying for people with Autism, and we have developed an approach to teaching swimming that works very well with the unique needs and challenges students with Autism experience.

Benefits of Swimming Lessons

Everyone has heard about the mental and physical benefits of swimming – it helps to improve flexibility, build core strength, improve cardiovascular health, and relieve stress. Swimming is also a low-impact activity that is gentle on your joints, so it’s safe for everyone – young, old, fit, or fragile.

But swimming is especially beneficial for people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Our students enjoy their swimming lessons much more than other types of classes, and they typically display fewer instances of the disruptive or self-soothing behaviors associated with Autism. This is due to our special training for connecting with students with Autism, combined with the unique qualities of swimming itself. Because swimming is a gentle, rhythmic activity with immediate sensory feedback and self-generated rewards, it actually seems to soothe and focus students with Autism much more effectively than other activities and dry-land therapies.

Don’t take our word for it: research studies from Topics in Early Childhood Special Education andEducation and Training in Developmental Disabilities on Autism have reported similar benefits for swimming lessons and aquatic therapy. After a few months of swimming lessons, parents of children in our program have reported that their pediatrician noted positive changes in their child’s physical health and muscular development. A 2010 study from the Hammill Institute stated, “Flexibility, cardio-respiratory endurance, balance, agility and power increased in the children. In most children, upper and lower extremity muscle strength, flexibility and endurance increased. And more importantly, the amount of stereotypical autistic movements (spinning, self-stimulation and delayed echolalia) decrease.”

Our Approach to Swimming Lessons

When we start teaching a new student, our swimming instructors take time to get to know them. We allow the student the time to familiarize themselves with the pool, the instructor, and other things they’ll be using, like their kickboard or fins. Familiarization helps to minimize social difficulties and discomfort that a child with Autism might experience. Children develop at their own pace, so it can be difficult to tell exactly when I child will become comfortable with the lessons, however, in swimming, we have found that it is within minutes that a child is comfortable with us in the water.

During the first lesson we develop an understanding of what particular activities each individual child finds to be reinforcing in the pool (e.g., splashing, jumping). Reinforcements are used for both correct and incorrect responses from the swimmer. For correct responses, we always give social reinforcement, such as verbal praise or “high-five”. Tangible reinforcement can be used as well. Tangible reinforcement includes the use of toys, such as rockets, rings, or fins. It could also mean giving the child a short activity such as jumping from the side of the pool, splashing around, or swimming underwater or sinking to the bottom. For incorrect responses to instructions, taking time away from tangible reinforcers is necessary. Of course, corrections are always made to allow the child and instructor to communicate and understand each other, perhaps the instruction was not clear or too complex, so we alter the instruction and repeat it in a different manner. A third type of reinforce is the edible reinforce. Many parents use edible reinforcement to motivate their child to behave while attending the lesson. Although effective, it is not recommended to use edible reinforcement when swimming. However, after the class, if edible reinforcement is used, we recommend a healthy snack.

We format our lessons into 4 parts: a short warm-up period, kicking, arm movements, and then combining the arms and legs movements. We have found that a 4-second rule, also known as a constant time delay (CDT), has worked best when instructing children with autism. In other words, after we give an instruction, such as, “legs straight,” we wait four seconds before speaking again. This time delay allows the child time to process the instruction and interpret it to the best of their ability. If a student does not respond within the 4 seconds after giving the instruction, then we assist with a controlling light physical prompt, and move their feet for them, in the correct position, so that they can feel what it should be like.

Physical prompting is an effective way to assist a swimmer in learning a new motor skill. In order to progress a child’s skills, we use a system that decreases the prompting as the child progresses in their lessons.

In addition to prompting, we have found it effective to begin the child outside of the water, on the pool deck, showing the spatial relation of their body before entering the water. This allows the child the opportunity to see first what the movement will be, and feeling it outside of the water. This makes it easier for them to understand ‘arm touches ear’, an example of side breathing, before asking them to do it in the water.

We start prompting based on the child’s level of body awareness and understanding of instructions. Our prompting progression starts with ‘hand-over-hand’, such as holding the child’s feet and moving the feet in a kicking motion, partial physical prompting such as a light tap on the foot, to the more independent prompts of gestural prompting by the instructor, whereas the child should do the same, and full independence prompting whereas we might simply explain the swim technique and or demonstrate it with a picture or model.

Safe Swimming Lessons

Although some people think of swimming as a risky activity, a swimming pool is actually highly-supervised and much more safety-focused than a typical playground. The pool itself is actually a weightless, low-impact environment, and One with the Water instructors provide constant individualized support, intervention, and observation for our young swimmers. Our lessons actually provide an added degree of comfort and freedom for parents and students, since learning to swim is a life-saving skill that increases the student’s safety out in the world when playing at the beach or houses with swimming pools. Because many kids with Autism find being in the water a sensory pleasure of being wholly surrounded by something that pushes back, they tend to attract to water. In the water, they have a freedom of motion. Underwater, noise disappears and vision softens, giving the child a break from the over-stimulating world in which they live. Many parents give their child a break from other therapies by taking them to a pool, knowing that it helps their child. If that’s the case, then you need to be certain your child swims well and has been educated in the techniques necessary to save their lives.

We have seen many positive effects in the children with autism who continuously attend swimming lessons with us – both in physical and muscular development and increased social communication. We love working with children and teaching swimming lessons. We invite you to experience it for yourself.

Yilmaz, I., Birkan, B., Konukman, F., & Erkan, M. (2005). Using a constant time delay procedure to teach aquatic play skills to children with autism. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 40, 171-182.
Rogers, L., Hemmeter, M.L., & Wolery, M. (2010). Using a Constant Time Delay Procedure to Teach Foundational Swimming Skills to Children with Autism. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education XX(X) 1-10.

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