Julia Kachur can swim. This is a big deal for the 16-year-old, who has mild cerebral palsy, cognitive disabilities and a rare form of epilepsy that causes sensory overload. But when she’s in the water, she’s weightless – she can relax and move her body like it’s the most natural thing in the world. “Being in the water is like being in a nice warm blanket,” says Julia’s mom, Teri. “The buoyancy in the water allows her body to move more freely, and the resistance the water offers is so therapeutic.”
Julia has done aqua therapy since she was just 3 months old. She has worked with multiple instructors in the area and is taking lessons from Mimi Conner, owner of Aqua-Fit Family Wellness Center in Plano. Teri says she is grateful that her daughter is learning the strokes, but for Julia, “it’s more about her time in the water.”
Like Julia, other children with special needs have discovered the whole new world that is swimming. Just the freedom of moving through the pool can boost confidence and self-awareness. “It is soothing and empowering to learn to swim,” says Bev Steinfink, registered nurse and Infant Aquatics training instructor. She explains that swimming works muscles, develops balance and gives kids a sense of control over their movement.
For example, kids with sensory integration disorder resist floating on their backs, but learning this skill improves their proprioception, or sense of the body’s movement and position. “The act of teaching them helps them make sense of the sensory messages being sent to their brain and gives them better balance,” Steinfink explains. Conner adds that swimming allows children to “channel their energy into something positive” so that during school or other activities they can remain focused. “The children also sleep very well after swimming, because the body can relax,” she says.
Children with special needs can begin swimming as infants alongside typical kids, other children with special needs or in an individual setting. Steinfink has found that kids with ADHD or autism spectrum disorders may not thrive in group environments but often excel in private lessons. And once any child has learned the basics in a one-on-one setting, he can usually move into a class, where he will benefit from social interactions with other swimmers.
For this reason, Emler Swim School incorporates children with special needs into their regular classes. “We have found that for 30 minutes a week, the interaction of these children is good for all students,” says President Jan Emler. If a student needs more personal care, an employee or parent can accompany him throughout the lesson, or he can take private or semi-private lessons tailored to his needs.
At first, swim lessons with most instructors focus on acclimating the child to water, introducing basic movement (paddling or kicking) and teaching the child to hold on to the side. Beyond this survival training, an instructor may choose to introduce further skills and activities, depending on the child’s abilities.
Conner uses diving rings, kickboards and other pool tools to promote critical life skills such as looking, focusing, taking turns and listening to the instructor. Steinfink uses an underwater step to help kids practice walking up and down. This is especially helpful for kids with CP and other conditions that restrict mobility – they learn the movements better in the water, and this muscle memory can translate to land.
Steinfink says physical therapists are “flabbergasted” by what their patients can do in the water. Kids may refuse to do some land-based exercises in physical therapy because the movements are painful, but they will readily participate in water exercises. “Being in the water is a natural process,” she says. “Swimming doesn’t take the place of physical therapy, but it’s certainly a good adjunctive thing to do.” In the right environment, swimming can supplement and even enhance what a child does outside the pool.
Teri says Aqua-Fit has been the perfect answer for Julia. “My daughter loves going to swim lessons,” she says. “It really comes down to finding the right instructor and the right approach for your child.”