« Parenting

Seeking Comfort in Water's 'Loving' Embrace or Why We Signed Alex Up for Swimming Lessons

by Brad Ludwig

It took a local tragedy , in 2007, to prompt us to get swimming lessons for my son, Alex.

Alex enjoying time in the pool in 2008
Some Autistic children LOVE water and will do anything to go for a swim. Alex is one of those children. He has a sensory processing disorder. There are two camps, sensory seeking or sensory avoiding. I'll explain this by telling you that Alex is sensory seeking. His brain will crave sensory input and he will engage in an activity until his brain has gotten it's fill. Sometimes he'll get locked in what I call a 'sensory loop' and will repeat a behavior to the point that he is crying because he can't stop. I once found my son, sitting on a kitchen counter, eating a bag of fire hot Cheetos. His mouth was covered in the powder, tears streaming down his face, all while he kept putting them in his mouth.  
It could be motion based sensory input he needs. If that's the case, he may spin in circles until he can't anymore. Then take a break and repeat. This can sometimes mean that he and I dance until he has had enough.
It could be visually based. He may watch a scene from a movie over and over until he's gotten the stimulus he needs. I will sometimes join in and do the voices of the characters. I have a wicked Mike Wazowski and Wing Commander T.I Fowler impersonations.
It is his need for impact or body pressure that can be the most troubling. He will suddenly drop to his knees on a hard floor. Jump up and down and shake my house or his strong desire to get into water. If you think about it, water is a very dense liquid that is readily accessible and it envelopes you as you get in. For a parent of child that sometimes craves this kind of input, it can be very frightening.
Sensory avoiding children find that certain things overstimulate them instantly. They aren't 'wired' for particular sensations. Stories of children who scream when they wear a cotton shirt because it feels like their skin is on fire, are not uncommon. Certain frequencies of sound can cause these children to panic. Like with everything else, you can get a mixture of the two camps. Seeking some sensations and avoiding others.

The summer of 2007 was the year of the tragedy I mentioned earlier. I have Alex, every weekend. My ex-wife had heard of the plight of this child and wanted to help. She could easily put herself in that position and empathize with what that family was going through.

I remember her teary phone call, mid-day on Saturday, with complete clarity. How scared she was for the child, the feelings of motherly fear for a child who could have been lost in the woods or worse... in the water. As my ex-wife helped in the search for Benjy, she started to get a picture of what sensory needs this lost child had. The more she found out, the more she found that Alex was just like him. I listened to her accounts of the days events and she and I agreed that getting Alex swimming lessons, at the YMCA, was the best thing we could do for him.

The story of the missing child did not end well. He was found, days later, in a pond that was not far from the house. My ex-wife and I shed tears for this child we didn't know, yet felt we knew all too well.

Fathers Day, 2012. Alex is contemplating going for a swim but is stopped by the weeds in the water.

I spend Tuesday evenings, with my son, and I now get to take him to his lessons at the Y. Alex can tread water, very well. He can dog paddle pretty well too. Floating and swimming on his back is the current goal we are striving for. He has a hard time coordinating kicking his feet and moving his arms, though. The instructors he's had, over the years, have been college students that like to work with special needs children. I admire their patience and dedication to teaching our son or the other special needs children to swim.

Little do each of these instructors know how the time they've spent, teaching our son to be safe in the water, also helps us sleep better at night.