Why Swimming Lessons Are Crucial for Children with Autism

Why Swimming Lessons Are Crucial for Children with Autism

It is important for any child to learn how to swim, but it is especially important for those with autism due to tendencies to wander towards water.

Sayed's story

Sayed Ashraaf Ali Sayed Imran is five years old and has autism. He is absolutely in love with anything that has to do with water. Anyone who watches the joy in his face when he goes to a swimming pool, waterfall, or beach would never expect that only a year ago he was absolutely petrified of the same thing that brings him such joy now. His fear of water ran so deep that he was even too afraid to take showers.

Ashraaf's mother, Zetty Hanani Ramli, explained the situation, "He overcame his fear of water after we went to Muar (Johor) for a holiday last year and stayed at a homestay. His cousins kept persuading him to join them in the pool and although he was initially reluctant he eventually joined them. After that, we had a hard time trying to get him out of the pool!"

Although she is happy that her son has overcome his fears, she now has an intense responsibility to watch over him so he doesn't get hurt playing in the water that he loves so much. Studies have shown that children like Ashraaf who have been diagnosed with ASD are at an intensely heightened risk of drowning.

The dangers of drowning

Not only is the risk heightened, but the National Autism Association in the United States has stated, via their website, that drowning is one of the top causes of death for those with autism. The NAA also has a "Lethal Outcomes in ASD Wandering" report and in 2012 it found that in 2009, 2010, and 2011 accidental drowning was the cause of death for 91 percent of the total deaths of children in the United States with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of 14 years old or younger. These results were also found by the Interactive Autism Network's 2011 Elopement and Wandering research report.

ASD professionals utilize the terms "wandering" or "elopement" to describe behavioral tendencies in those with autism spectrum disorder. The NAA defines wandering by "moving about from place to place with or without a fixed plan." Elopement is similar, but not quite the same, with the definition of "running away, wandering away, walking away, escaping or otherwise leaving a safe setting unsupervised or unnoticed.

These children often engage in wandering or eloping, resulting in them straying from a safe environment into areas or situations where there is a safety risk, a perfect example being wandering towards water.

Ashraaf is no different than the children these statistics refer to. His mother explains that she often observes that he will subconsciously move towards absolutely anything that has the ability to grab his attention. As a mother, she constantly fears that he will wander away without her noticing, and just into a swimming pool or other body of water, now that he has discovered his love for it. She explains, "This can turn out to be very dangerous because Ashraaf doesn't know how to shout for help like other children. In fact, he is essentially non-verbal and his speech is limited as he is still undergoing therapy."

Ashraaf's condition is not uncommon, as autism is a bio-neurological developmental disability, and it can show in children at even younger than three years old. Normal development of the brain becomes stunted, especially when it comes to social interaction, communication skills, and cognitive function. Like Ashraaf, most people with autism experience hardships when trying to communicate either verbally or non-verbally. This is especially noticeable in social interactions or when engaging in activities involving play or leisure.

Driven by fear?

For some parents, the fear even manifests in not bringing their children on outings due to thinking there is a possibility they could run out of sight, and potentially place themselves in danger if not noticed in time. This has sparked a debate about what the right way to approach the situation is.


At Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, a study was conducted and found that it is of the utmost importance to teach children with autism how to swim. The study is available in the American Journal of Public Health.

The findings stated, "once a child is diagnosed with autism, usually between two and three years of age, pediatricians and parents should immediately help enroll the child in swimming classes, before any behavioral therapy, speech therapy or occupational therapy. Swimming ability for kids and autism is an imperative survival skill."

Ashraaf's mother learned from the experts involved and decided to enroll him in swimming lessons at the Splashtastik Swim School in Shah Alam, Selangor. The swimming school also offers classes for children with special needs, which are actually available at many such establishments.

Zetty explained, "my husband (Sayed Imran Sayed Osman) and I want Ashraaf to know how to swim so that he will be able to save himself just in case he falls into a pool." She stated that they were thrilled with the progress they had seen their son make, and were happy they had decided chosen such a good swimming instructor, Nurawatif Hasini, for their son's needs. Nurawatif told them that even though their son's swimming skills were not yet consistent, he had mastered floating on water and the ability to hold his breath underwater, which is a strong sign of moving towards swimming skills. Also, very importantly, he is now able to wait for his instructor to tell him he is ready and able to jump into the water, as opposed to before when he would simply jump into whatever body of water was in sight without much attention to whether anyone approved or not.

Nurawatif went on to explain Ashraaf's progress, "he is now good at following instructions and knows he can only get into the pool when he is allowed to do so. I make him sit by the poolside first and only when I say 'okay' can he jump into the water."

The institute responsible for Ashraaf's success, Splashtastik Swim School, opened in 2014 and has become an official partner of Swim School International. SSI is committed to using standards-based training systems to both train and to certify swim teachers. Clearly, this method is very successful, given how influential Nurawatif has been with Ashraaf.

Splashtastik is not only designated for children with special needs, but caters to neurotypical children as well, regardless of age, and even adults who never previously learned how to swim. The swim school was founded by Azmir Khalied, who is a proponent of all children, neurotypical or otherwise, being taught to swim at an early age, in a safe and comforting setting.

He explains, "they have to be taught water safety because many drowning cases involve children below five years of age. In the US, drowning is the second highest cause of death for young children while in Asia, it is the top cause of death for children aged below five."

In order to turn around these statistics, it is integral to make sure your children have proper training in water safety at a young age.