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5 swim tips for kids with autism and other developmental disabilities

5 swim tips for kids with developmental disabilities

Updated: August 4, 2023 · 4 Minute Read

Cindi Green, Autism Swim Trainer and Consultant

Reviewed by:

Cindi Green, Autism Swim Trainer and Consultant


  • Swimming is a great activity for the entire family and can be very beneficial for kids with autism and other developmental disabilities.
  • Even if you own a pool, visiting a public pool can be a very different experience for a neurodivergent child. Make sure you properly prepare your child before their first visit.
  • Water safety is the most important consideration anytime anyone is in or around water. It is important that your child understands basic water safety and that they are never left unattended.

Is your child new to swimming? Have they had a good (or bad) experience in the past? Here are five tips to help make swimming a safe and enjoyable experience for everyone in the family!


But before we get started: Important tips for visiting public pools

Visiting a public pool can be a very different experience than taking a dip in your own pool. Here are some things to keep in mind for those occasions.

  • Get familiar: Spend some time getting to know the swimming pool. Visit the facility in advance with your child. Take a tour, and familiarize your child with the environment. Knowing the layout, including where the changing rooms, showers, and restrooms are located, can help reduce anxiety. Take some pictures or record some videos to share with your child later.
  • Choose the right time: Crowded pools can be overwhelming, so try to find a time when there are fewer people around. Some pools offer special “quiet” or “sensory-friendly” swim sessions. These sessions provide a more relaxed and less crowded environment.
  • Exit strategy: While public pools can be a great source of fun they also can potentially be overwhelming for neurodivergent kiddos. Make sure you have an exit plan in place in case your child does become overwhelmed while at the pool. On the other hand, it can also be difficult for children who have a deep love of water to leave the pool when the swim session is over. Have a plan in place to make this transition a bit easier, such as their favorite toy or a place to visit.
  • Lifeguards: Always make sure there are lifeguards on duty who are aware of your child’s needs.


Now onto our five swim tips!


1. Safety first

Did you know that a child can drown in less than two inches of water? Or that a child can drown in less than 20 seconds?


Water safety is crucial. It is important that your child understands basic water safety before even visiting the pool. You should always keep a close eye on your child and never leave them unattended near water. Come up with a way your child can communicate with you when they want to go in or near the water.


Also, consider using a life jacket or other appropriate floatation device if necessary. Be sure to use an approved life-saving device, and learn how to get a proper fit for each person who needs one. No matter where your child is swimming, at the beach, lake, or pool, this is a great precaution to take.


And lastly, make sure your child understands these simple skills in the event of an accidental entry into the water:

  • Front float and back float: If your child can do this they will be able to roll from their front to their back, calling for help, then rolling back to their front.
  • Kick: It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to help them move in the water.
  • Treading water: Again, this doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be good enough to help them rest when they can’t touch the bottom.
  • Crawling along the wall: Your child should know how to crawl along the side of a pool and climb out.


2. Gradual introduction

If your child is new to swimming, start with small steps. Begin with shallow water, where they can touch the bottom and feel more comfortable. Encourage them to get used to the water gradually and at their own pace. Once they get used to the water you can begin introducing other things, like blowing bubbles and kicking.


3. Visual supports

Visual aids, such as picture schedules or social stories, and videos can be helpful in preparing your child for swimming. Never underestimate the power of pictures! These tools provide a visual guide, outlining the steps involved in swimming, from changing into swimwear to entering the water. They can reduce anxiety and help with transitioning between different activities.



4. Sensory considerations

For children with sensory sensitivities, the feeling of water or the sounds in a swimming pool may be overwhelming. Consider using earplugs or a swim cap to help reduce noise or water sensitivity.


Goggles can aid in helping a child become used to putting their head under water. This is important because being comfortable with their head underwater can help reduce panic in an accidental entry.


If your child has specific sensory needs, you can try introducing water play in other ways. Try pouring water over their hands or using a spray bottle to introduce them to the different sensations.


You may also want to look for a pool with designated quiet times.


5. Celebrate progress

Swimming can be challenging, but every milestone is worth celebrating. Recognize and reward your child’s accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem. Positive reinforcement goes a long way in building confidence.



Remember, swimming is all about having fun and staying safe. With a bit of preparation and support, kids with autism and other developmental disabilities can make a big splash in the pool.


And remember, you don’t have to do this alone! Many kids take swimming lessons. It is a great way for your child to meet friends, socialize and safely learn how to swim. You can find quality swim instructors in your area by searching our directory. And you can click here to learn more about swim lessons for neurodivergent kids.

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