Miramichi swim program for kids with autism gets global recognition

Autism Swim Miramichi focuses on teaching water safety to children and youth with autism. (Submitted by Cindi Green - image credit)
Autism Swim Miramichi focuses on teaching water safety to children and youth with autism. (Submitted by Cindi Green - image credit)

Cindi Green, founder of Autism Swim Miramichi, says the community's reception of the program has "blown me out of the water."

"Some parents have told us this is the first activity that the child has been able to participate in," Green said. "So that's what we call impact."

The organization focuses on teaching water safety to children and youth with autism, while accommodating sensory needs and allowing the students to take as much time as they need to prepare for the water.

It's an important program to have, said Green, given the numbers of children under 14 with autism who drown.

Submitted by Cindi Green
Submitted by Cindi Green

Green said children with autism tend to be attracted to water but don't always have the ability to comprehend dangerous situations. They may also wander without communicating, which could lead to accidental drowning, she said.

According to the National Autism Association in the United States, accidental drownings made up 90 per cent of total deaths reported in children 14 or younger with autism spectrum disorder from 2009 to 2011 in the U.S.

Global recognition

Green is certified through Autism Swim in Australia, which has more than 1,200 Autism Swim providers in 26 countries.

The organization recently named Green runner-up provider of the year.

She said there are a few things that likely helped her program stand out. When she became certified a few years ago, Green said, she was the first to be certified in Canada. Since then, she said there are more instructors certified in the country and even a couple in the province.

One of the other things she noted about her program was the impact it has, not only on the students and parents, but also on the instructors.

Submitted by Cindi Green
Submitted by Cindi Green

"They learn about autism, of course, and they also learn and gain teaching strategies that are helpful for any type of work. And that will carry them forward into their studies as they enter university as well as into their careers."

For the students, Green said the program provides a fun and safe activity, but also a caring and supportive environment. She said it also gives the children a chance to work on their social and communication skills.

Each student is taught one-on-one by an instructor and since the program has four instructors, there are a maximum of four kids in the pool at once, which Green said creates a better sensory environment.

Sensory modifications

The Miramichi program currently has 17 students ranging in age from three to 14, and all have different needs. Instructors work to modify the lessons for each, said Green.

For example, she said, if a child has a sensitivity to being touched, an instructor will adapt the lesson so they don't need to be touched.

She said there was one student who came for a few weeks who wasn't comfortable getting in the pool right away.

Despite loving to swim at summer camp, she was reluctant about the new pool and different environment. So for a few lessons, Green said, the girl sat on the bench with the instructor until she felt comfortable getting into the water.

Green said there's more to come for the program. She said it just received funding to start an autism swim program for First Nations kids in communities across the province.

"We'll be able to just create and make more impact as we go," she said.