When Isaac and Noah were younger than two years old, we signed them up for beginning swimming. Noah was hysterical because of the loud noises in the pool. After two full weeks, Noah finally decided he wanted to get in the water with me. It was the last class, and he put his feet in the pool, but it was progress. Although he didn't do very well following directions, Isaac seemed to enjoy the lessons. He did okay until he received his MMR shot and was covered from head to toe in a full-body rash. Nobody wanted him in the pool, so he stayed home. Needless to say, learning to swim was not high on our priority list after Isaac and Noah were diagnosed with autism. We had too many other things that needed our attention.
A few years ago during an IEP meeting at school I heard these words: Noah has to swim when he gets to junior high. Does he know how? My heart sank, just like Noah’s body did every time he got into the swimming pool.
Isaac has never been afraid of water; in fact, he’s always loved it. He has no fear. At his special school, he’s enjoyed swimming in his adapted PE class. As the PE teacher has told me, “He floats around so effortlessly, usually laughing and smiling. We could put a fruity drink in his hand with a little umbrella. When he’s in the water, he looks like he’s on vacation.”
Almost three years ago I found a college student who gave private lessons. She was highly recommended, a swimmer at our local university, and was studying to be a teacher. The kids and I really liked her. After several sessions, Noah and Henry still wouldn’t put their faces in the water, although they were a lot more comfortable just being in the pool.
I enrolled them both in lessons later that summer at the aquatics center and was approached by Jen, a 92-year-old swimming instructor, who told me Noah and Henry needed to be in HER class. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. I told her we hadn’t paid, and she said that was okay by her. "Come to my class after you’re done with the ones you paid for," she said. She was tough. She made the kids say, “I will try!” And my boys tried. They were scared to death of disappointing her. They practiced touching their noses on pennies in the bottom of our bathtub filled with water because that was their homework assignment. Noah looked a little out of place as a 10-year-old boy sitting next to preschoolers, but he hung in there. By the session’s end, he was floating a little.
(The local news station covered a story about this remarkable teacher during our swim session:
Each spring and summer I enrolled Noah and Henry in another session somewhere. I think they repeated the same class two or three times, but as I told them, “If you’re learning something, you keep trying, you feel more comfortable, and you’re having fun, that’s all that really matters. I don’t care if you pass to the next class. I just want you to keep improving.”
Last year they both did really well at an indoor pool during summer lessons. Something clicked. Noah and Henry were both able to float. I was floating on cloud nine.
A few months later, a friend (she has two children with special needs) asked if my twins might be interested in participating in a study at our local university. A professor was researching how to best teach kids with autism how to swim. College students were helping him. No cost was involved, and it was every Sunday morning. Nobody needed to ask me twice. We were there.
After the first session, the professor asked Henry to join, too, since he looked quite sad and jealous sitting poolside. The results were amazing. As long as hesitant Henry wore a life jacket and a wetsuit, he was happy to try almost anything. He went down a water slide for the first time. Noah learned new skills and became more confident and comfortable in deep water. He loves to touch the bottom of the pool because one of his instructors taught him how to do the pencil dive. Isaac enjoyed the whole sensory experience and even swam with flippers. At times, though, he gave them a run for their money. They learned to be creative with him. Isaac helped his instructors to evolve, too.
Today I took the trio to the local junior high pool (where Noah will swim when he starts school there in the fall), and all three of them jumped off the diving boards. Nobody cried except me. For the first time, Henry didn’t wear a life jacket in the deep water. He jumped in, swam to the side, and gave me a thumbs up. Then he asked if I wanted to watch him back float. (What kind of question is that?) Noah jumped off the boards and was content and calm. He said he wasn't nervous at all. Isaac made big splashes and big sounds. He was soaring high. He was in love. My three boys jumped in with both feet.
It was the most beautiful sight in the world.