Aquatic therapy provides an environment uniquely suited to the special needs of children on the autism spectrum. To recap the first article, water has the right amount of hydrostatic pressure that makes an autistic child feel safe and supported, at the same time that it stimulates their sensory system without overwhelming the child.
An aquatic environment is fun for the child, certainly, but even more importantly, children with autism respond productively to therapists and learning activities while in the water.
To offset an autistic child’s tendency to lose focus, warm water temperature helps a child relax and concentrate so that learning can take place. According to Chesapeake Bay Aquatic Physical Therapy, aquatic therapy develops an autistic child’s ability to stay focused, handle frustration, control impulses, and follow instructions. Since autistic children learn better through visual aids more than auditory aids (and visual cues more than oral directives), therapists can laminate cards with illustrated instructions for use during one on one sessions.
Aside from facilitating disciplines for learning and achieving learning goals, aquatic therapy has also shown to improve a child’s balance and coordination. In the water, the autistic child has the opportunity to experience his or her body in an exploratory, nonthreatening manner. This exploration of body movements and recognition of the impact of one’s own physical actions causes self-awareness and develops good balance and coordination. The resistance of water experienced by the child will also increase muscle strength. A child’s self-esteem improves through the overall strengthening of cognitive processes and the expansion of abilities and sensory experiences during aquatic therapy.
Therapists can also conduct group sessions, since aquatic therapy is a calm and relaxed environment to enable kids with autism to feel more enjoyment than anxiety when interacting with each other. Therapists have noticed that eye contact improves through group aquatic therapy. Being in the water also invites play, a social skill that commonly needs attention among children on the autism spectrum. Along with play, water games and activities can also promote cooperation with others that can translate to other contexts in life.
To optimize a child’s sensory and learning experience in the water, it is useful to be aware of a few drawbacks of a pool setting and to plan accordingly. Some pools are noisy with the type of lighting that children with autism cannot relax in, regardless of how soothing the water might be. Aquatic therapy might require some forethought before experimenting with this type of intervention. The temperature of the water must be warm. Since children with autism do not always respond to verbal directions, constant supervision is necessary during aquatic therapy.
Note: More scientific studies need to be conducted to validate the results being claimed but it is clear than many parents have found aquatic therapy of great value.