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June 5, 2019

Can Aquatic Therapy Benefit Children with Autism?

Did You Know?

Drowning is the number one cause of accidental death in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with autism tend to be drawn to water, but many children with autism cannot enroll in typical swim classes due to their motor learning challenges, impaired communication, and/or receptive language skills. 

 

Can Aquatic Therapy Be Helpful for Children with ASD?

I was able to be part of a research team that looked at the impact of aquatic-based occupational therapy on swim skills and social skills in children with ASD. At the time, I was living in southern California, where swimming is a year-round activity for many families, and is shown to be a preferred activity for families of children with special needs.

Our participants were 3-7 years old and were also receiving occupational therapy services at an outpatient pediatric clinic. They attended 24 one-hour aquatic-based sessions with 2-4 participants in a group, and no more than two children per therapist.

Our research team had three questions: 

  1. Do swim skills improve? This was assessed using an aquatic skills checklist.
  2. What was the minimum hours required to achieve the necessary water safety skills?
  3. Do social skills improve? This was assessed using Social Skills Improvement System, which looks at both social skills and problem behaviors.

We began sessions with warm-up group activities like greeting songs, pretend play, taking turns, and choosing from a visual schedule of preferred water play activities. We then transitioned to individual motor skill acquisition, such as breath control, pool navigation skills, propulsion skills, flotation skills, etc. All activities began with a song and visual supports to provide all the children with a predictable routine.

 

The Results

At the end of the study, we found a significant improvement in overall swim skills!

The most noticeable gains were found in breath control, changing position skills, and propulsion skills. No measurable difference was found in social skills improvement during this particular study; however, aquatic therapy as a whole has been shown to help improve self-esteem and social skills.

Because drowning is a real concern for families of children with autism, it was exciting and promising that we found significant changes in water safety after only eight hours of intervention. Our study showed that children with autism respond positively to aquatic-based intervention and can learn crucial water safety skills, given the right environment and support. You can read the full study here. 

 

We're Here to Help!

Looking for aquatic therapy for your child? We're here to help. Our specialized physical therapists work with each child and the family to determine their individual goals. 

To get started, please contact our Curative New Berlin Therapies team by calling 262-782-9015 or request an appointment. We have caring, certified physical therapists who are experts in the latest treatment options and would love to help your child and family thrive.  A physician referral is required for a therapy evaluation. Aquatic therapy sessions are held at a local fitness center we partner with for services.

Learn more about Curative New Berlin Therapies

Nicole Beard, Occupational Therapist

Nicole (Niki) Beard, MA, OTR/L, is a practicing pediatric occupational therapist with Curative New Berlin Therapies. She has her Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and her Master’s from the University of Southern California along with  over seven years of experience working with children.

Niki's specialty areas include children with developmental delays, Autism and Sensory Processing Disorders. 

She enjoys building relationships with the families her favorite part is seeing how the gains made in therapy translate to the home setting. Outside of work, Niki loves spending time with her husband and their two young daughters, as well as traveling, cooking, and being outdoors.

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