This post is sponsored by Steve Wallen Swim School, but all opinions are my own.
When Isla was first diagnosed with autism, we had many different conversations with doctors, therapist and teachers (and almost everyone in between) about how to proceed. The one thing everyone suggested over and over were sensory activities. This frustrated me to no end, because I thought we were supposed to be focusing on autism. Why was no one addressing the autism?? Why was everyone always so busy talking about sensory input? Well, it turns out that for most, striking a balance with the right combination of sensory input and output is key to regulating autism.
Before I explain further, I do want to add that I am no expert, just a mom who has found success in these things for my daughter. Each person with autism experiences things differently and while I’m painting broad brush strokes, these things are generally true, including in Isla’s case.
What Is The Sensory System?
The more I learned about autism, the more I learned that the sensory system is vital to success. The sensory system is how your body processes all of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings you experience throughout the day. For most people with autism, their body processes senses more intensely.
A neurotypical person may hear the low hum of the refrigerator in the background, but it doesn’t prevent them from concentrating on an important project. They might be able to handle a crowded store during the holidays, loud music in the car, a scratchy wool sweater, being hugged or bright fluorescent lights. These are overly simplified examples, but for people with autism, these things can often lead to an overload of the senses, which prevents them from being able to cope and leads to sensory overload.
I like to think of your sensory system as a bucket. All of the ways your body experiences a sensory input in your environment is a drop in the bucket. If you experience too many, too quickly, the bucket is going to overflow and have a sensory meltdown. Finding ways to empty the bucket occasionally, through a sensory activity, is how you can maintain a manageable water level and avoid meltdown.
Everyone has a sensory system and can experience sensory overload. The difference is how you are able to cope with it and bounce back. When Isla experiences sensory overload, it often leads to an inability to communicate her needs and frustration with our misguided attempts to help. When she was younger, things would spiral downward quickly and was often unable to recover for the entire day. But, with the help of our amazing ABA therapist, we as parents have become better able to identify her triggers and provide outlets to build up her ability to tolerate sensory input, and she rarely has sensory meltdowns anymore.
Swimming as a Sensory Activity
Maintaining a manageable sensory level is what we do with and for Isla throughout the day. We still manage a majority (I’d say about 50%) of it because she is still young, but the goal is to get her to identify her triggers and be fully capable of doing what she needs to “empty her bucket”.
By far, her most favorite sensory activity is swimming. Water is unbelievably calming, so it’s no wonder. I even recall hearing some age old parenting advice about getting a fussy baby to water, so we definitely haven’t invented anything! The buoyancy, the calming effect, and the weightlessness all combine to make the perfect sensory activity. Even just the sensory feedback of from the large muscle movements (like kicking and scooping your arms) in the water is sensory input enough to calm the body.
We noticed a significant difference in her behavior when she started swimming last summer. On days she swam, her body looked visibly calmer, which translated to her mind being calmer. With a calm, clear mind, she could get her ideas and thoughts out easier, which meant her demands were being met. We saw a dramatic increase in her communication and a decrease in her sensory related tantrums (can I get an amen?!), which meant we could make way to work on bigger skills, like potty training and staying in her own bed all night.
Steve Wallen Swim School
Once we made the connection that swimming was such a great sensory tool, we started researching swim schools. We had tried several in the past, but we felt strongly that we wanted the focus to be on skill building, as well as sensory. Sensory activity aside, water safety is so important, and we wanted our children to go somewhere where they would develop swimming and safety skills simultaneously, rather than just play in the water. We felt that by providing Isla with the foundational skills of swimming, that it could potentially become a tool to regulate her sensory system for the rest of her life.
I loved that Steve Wallen Swim School has instructors who are more specialized in special needs. They didn’t hesitate when I mentioned that Isla has autism and they had several instructors that were qualified to work with her. It has truly been amazing to see how quickly Isla has developed skills. By the second lesson, she was putting her face in the water and swimming independently. I feel like the instructors strike a balance between pushing the students to achieve new skills while still making them feel comfortable.
Steve Wallen Swim School was founded over 40 years ago in the Sacramento area. They have two locations, Roseville and El Dorado Hills, and I honestly can’t say enough good things about them. All of the instructors I’ve observed are highly trained, the office staff is incredibly friendly and accommodating and their facility is top notch. If you are in the area and considering swim lessons for your child, you absolutely need to try Steve Wallen Swim School. You can try the first lesson free and I promise you will be back! You can read more about our full review of Steve Wallen Swim School here.
Swimming is a such a valuable life skill for any child, but for a child with autism, swimming can provide an added set of benefits.