Summer is approaching and the neighborhood swimming pools will soon open for the season. This will elicit whoops and hollers out of most kiddos, but for children with sensory processing issues or sensitivities to water (as in the bathtub or swimming pool) this is yet another challenging hurdle for the entire family to overcome. What can you do to help your child enjoy all of the amazing benefits that swimming offers?
Although the natural properties of water and the physical movement benefits of swimming can be an amazing and therapeutic experience for kids with sensory issues, some children are simply like "fish out of water" when they are, well... IN THE WATER. If your child resists swimming, learning to swim, or won't even allow you to rinse the shampoo out of his hair in the bathtub, there's much you can do to help acclimate your child to water and decrease the anxiety and aversion that he experiences every time he's faced with getting wet.
1. Understand the unique sensory challenges that water and swimming pools present to some children.
The Smells: Chlorinated water has a very strong smell and even lake or ocean water can have a distinct odor that may agitate some sensory kids. If your child is very sensitive to smells, it may take him awhile to accommodate to this.
The Sights and Sounds: Kids are using their outside voices at the pool. They are yelling, squealing, yelping and splashing about and it can get very, very loud. Take that party indoors and it multiplies exponentially. The sound echoes and bounces off of the high ceilings and walls and it is often difficult get organized; even as an adult without sensory issues. Kids are running around and movement is unpredictable and sudden. For a child with auditory and visual processing difficulties, unexpected and unsolicited sounds and movements from others can certainly provoke anxiety.
The Temperatures: You start the day with hot summer temperatures and then head to the pool to cool off. These extremes in temperature may make your child reluctant to get into the pool once he realizes the differences in air and water temperatures. Try a shower beforehand and adjust the temperature gradually making it colder. Work on getting feet wet first and then slowly splashing the water over your child's legs, arms and then body before immersing all of the body parts. Often giving your child this control over the "feeling" is helpful.
The Feelings: The biggest "sensory challenge" for a child with sensory processing issues is to get his face wet. To many kiddos, this can be perceived as painful and may cause a lot of anxiety in anticipation. Add to this wet hair, a wet bathing suit, the rough cement or squishy, sandy bottom, and all of the other sensory input and your child may need some strategies to tolerate these changes.
2. Be prepared!
Start working on this at home in the bathtub. Give him a damp washcloth to practice wiping his face from forehead to chin with deep pressure. Progress to using his wet hand to learn to "scrub down" his face with deep pressure to counteract the tickling of the splashing water on his face. Fill the tub with an inch or two of water and have your child lay on his tummy with his hands on the bottom of the tub. This gives your child control over lowering and raising into and out of the water. Practice blowing a floating toy across the water surface for awhile. Progress to putting his mouth into the water to blow bubbles. Move from mouth, to nose, to eyes, to ears (perhaps adding each body part with each successive bath) and add a little more water with each new day. Eventually, you can say "now get the back of your head wet" and "Wa-la" his whole head is submerged.
Try giving your child goggles or a snorkel mask in the tub. Keeping the eyes dry and allowing him to see under the water is very helpful to calm him and for decreasing some of the anxiety.
Write a social story with your child. Keep it simple (5 or 6 sentences or steps) and write and illustrate together a story of what happens when your family goes to the pool to swim.
3. Dress for success!
Consider purchasing a "rash guard" or short or long-sleeved snug fitting shirt made of bathing suit material. This will keep them cooler in the hot sun, protect skin from UV rays, and keep the chill off of shoulders and arms when they come out of the pool. Keep hair tied back and off of your child's shoulders and provide deep pressure massage to his feet before donning his water shoes. If you child also struggles with body awareness, purchase a pair of cheap canvas shoes that he can wear right into the pool. The wet shoes add weight and increase the feedback that gives your child the feeling of where he is in space. This will help him return to standing or a vertical position in the water and could even save him if he falls or stumbles.
4. Find the right time!
Pools and swimming areas at the least crowded times may be more tolerable for your child. Early mornings during swim lessons, late afternoons, and around mealtimes can be good times to visit the pool. Indoor pools are less crowded in nice weather. Call the pool or waterpark ahead of time and ask when it’s least crowded. Plan short trips initially and set a timer, encouraging your child to remain in the pool until the time is up. Increase this time daily and offer encouragement when your child tolerates longer periods.
5. Safety is most important!
Children with sensory issues often also have low muscle tone, strength, and/or coordination challenges. Their bodies DO NOT respond like the bodies of children with typical gross motor skills and muscle tone. They can be more buoyant and have difficulty remaining upright and vertical in the water or conversely they can have more difficulty keeping their feet up and off of the floor to float. Add to that decreased core muscle strength and postural insecurity, and the pool can be a dangerous place. Many parents use floatation devices and although this gives peace of mind in some cases, it also gives children a false sense of security and an incorrect sense of where their bodies are in space. Practice getting from sit to stand in the shallow end of the pool. Practice placing them on their backs and allowing them to stand up without your help. Wearing shoes or small ankle/wrist weights (*please supervise this closely) can give added sensory input and help guide feet to the floor.
Consider private swimming lessons at first instead of group lessons. Ask around for an instructor who is experienced with and understands the unique needs of a child with sensory challenges. The pool provides so many, many benefits to the sensory system and can be the very best place for you child to integrate his sensory system and have a truly fabulous summer swimming experience.
If you have tried swimming lessons and found them to be a frustrating challenge for you and your child, consider finding an aquatic therapy program where a Physical Therapist, Occupational Therapist, or a Speech Therapist with specialized training can work with your child and help move them toward a successful swimming experience. The benefits of a positive aquatic experience should outweigh any of your child's initial adversities and you will likely be astounded at the long term benefits.
Sheri L. Ireland-Berk, PT
Director and Physical Therapist
BDI Playhouse Children's Therapy