Making a splash: YMCA teaches autistic students water safety and swimming skills

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Photo by Sue Suchyta
Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder work one-on-one with Downriver Family YMCA swim instructors in the Lincoln Park High School pool through a program funded by private donors and the Detroit Swims Initiative, which helps support teaching water safety and swimming skills to children in underserved communities.

By SUE SUCHYTA
Times-Herald Newspapers

LINCOLN PARK – Local YMCA swim instructors are making a splash with 10 Downriver autistic teens as they teach them basic water safety and swimming skills at the Lincoln Park High School pool.

The session began Nov. 25 and runs through Dec. 20, with 45-minute morning classes four days a week.

Dan Marsh, 28, of Woodhaven, aquatic director at the Downriver YMCA, 16777 North Line Road in Southgate, said donations fund the current program at no cost to the parents. He said it is the first step in a larger program the YMCA hopes to launch next year for 100 of the 300 children identified in the Downriver area with autistic spectrum disorder.

ASD refers to a wide range of developmental disabilities in which individuals experience significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

“We are just trying to give them a basic water safety course so if they find themselves in the water they will have the skills necessary to keep them up near the top or get back to the edge of the pool,” Marsh said.

Marsh said a Downriver YMCA summer carwash fundraiser and grant funding from the Detroit Swims Initiative covered initial program costs, which is $110 per participant.

The Detroit Swims Initiative teaches critical water safety and swimming skills to children in under-served communities that annually experience a disproportionate number of water-related deaths and injuries.

While the Downriver YMCA site currently offers swim lessons for individuals with special needs, this is the first time it has targeted the ASD population with a class, Marsh said.

He said a key step when working with ASD students is to let them set the pace and to build a trust relationship with them.

“I don’t want to force my guys to do anything that they are not comfortable with,” Marsh said. “I want them to know that I understand them and we took it really slow at first and let them get adjusted to it. We are going at their pace.”

Assistant principal and athletic director Donald McKenzie said the parents and ASD students are excited about the program.

“The kids have a great time,” McKenzie said. “I’ve been here three to four times to watch and they all love it.”

ASD classroom teacher Robin Bondarenok, of Lincoln Park, said before the ASD students went to the pool, the classroom teachers created a social story with pictures explaining what was going to happen, what students would do and the rules they would follow.

Bondarenok said students also created their own social story pictures to reinforce the routine and rules.

A social story is a written or visual guide describing social interactions, situations, behaviors, skills and concepts. It describes possible social cues and responses in an easy-to-understand manner.

ASD classroom teacher Karyn Brooks, of Allen Park, said the ASD students’ problematic behaviors decrease when they are looking forward to pool time.

Brooks said the students love getting in the water and the change in routine, and parents are pleased their children are learning new safety and recreational skills.

They let each ASD student sets their own pace, and they respect their routines, Brooks
said.

“We have one student here that waits until (class) is halfway over until he eventually jumps in and gets the courage to do it,” Brooks said.

Brooks said some of the ASD students have a hard time following the lessons that the YMCA staff is teaching, but they are not causing problems – they are just overwhelmed with the excitement of swimming. She said each student responds differently to the stimuli.

“The first day was amazing to me, and seeing how excited they all were,” Brooks said. “I was kind of skeptical and worried. (But) when they all got in the water, I was pretty impressed with their skills and just seeing how happy they were, that they were able to have fun.”

Bondarenok said the independence she sees her students display in the pool makes her happy.

“These kids, you have to direct them from A to B,” Bondarenok said, “but some of the boys they just get in and start swimming around. They know what to do. They’re happy, and it just shows a big independence for them.”

Teacher aide Gary Edison, of Ecorse, said it is amazing to see the ASD students having a good time and being able to swim like other students in the school.

“We have seen a few come out of their comfort zone and take some steps they normally would not do,” Edison said. “A lot of them are pretty aquatic. Some of the ones that I never even expected to do so adapted to the water.”

Teacher aide Mishell Nutter, of Clawson, who is also happy to see the ASD students enjoy an activity other students in the school enjoy, hopes it will make them more willing to try other new activities.

Brooks said she appreciates the patience and understanding of the YMCA staff.

“Even the ones that may be giving them problems, they are not bothered by them,” Brooks said. “It’s a great opportunity for the whole ASD program.”

YMCA lifeguard Amanda Bower, 19, of Lincoln Park said she would like to see the program expanded to include more ASD students.

“I think every special needs kid deserves to learn how to swim,” Bower said. “It’s a good technique, especially if anything happens, they need to save themselves and there is nobody there to help.”

Dylan Smith, 16, a junior at LPHS who would like to become an ASD teacher, volunteers to work with the ASD students. He said getting ASD students out of the classroom gives them even more of an opportunity to learn.

“It makes me feel good that I can see them having fun and stuff,” Smith said.

Smith said the time he spent with his own autistic cousins encourages him to become an ASD teacher.

Marsh, who previously worked with special needs children one-on-one, encourages people to help fund the program through the YMCA.

“For every $110 we get, we can teach another kid how to swim,” Marsh said. “In 2014 we are going to make a big impact Downriver, and the more resources we get, the bigger the impact we can have.”