Aquatic Therapy and Autism

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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that affects typical brain growth. ASD has a wide variation in presentation, however, some common characteristics include difficulties with communication and social interactions, repetitive interests and activities and motor behaviours. With an estimated 60,0001 people in BC currently living with ASD, available and accessible resources for treatment and therapy are vital. Community aquatic centres play have a role in providing easy and affordable aquatic therapy options to families where access to therapy may be limited or difficult to find. There are different types of treatments that are used to help children and youth with autism.  One of the most effective forms of therapy is aquatic therapy. This recreational therapy involves the use of water and has an important role in enhancing the individual’s quality of life and improving productivity. Water activities can assist in restoration, improvement and enhancing quality functions of an individual with autism.

Water Safety

Children with ASD are at increased risk of death by drowning. Guan and Li2 reported that drowning accounts for 46% of all injury deaths among children with autism, and, children with autism are 160 times as likely to die from drowning as the general pediatric population. Children with ASD and intellectual disability tend to wander from their safe environment towards bodies of water, seeking relief from the serenity of water when they experience heightened anxiety. With the drowning statistics, Guan and Li recommend that swimming is an imperative survival skill for children with autism, and that aquatic training should be introduced as soon as a child is diagnosed. They emphasize that swimming skills should be taught before any behavioural, speech, or occupational therapy.

Physical Benefits

According to research, water is the ideal medium for body rehabilitation or exercise. Water provides an ideal environment which helps to reduce body weight by up to 90%. Warm water activities/therapy decreases stress, reduces spasticity, relaxes muscles and improves posture, balance and coordination.

Sensory Benefits

Individuals with ASD usually have sensory difficulties. Some sensory issues can be a strong reaction to different textures and over or under reacting to stimuli in the environment. Aquatic therapy offers a safe and supportive environment to strengthen sensory processing skills. The hydrostatic pressure from water soothes children with autism (acts like a weighted blanket) and allows organization of sensory inputs and increases confidence to try to new movements. Vestibular stimulation is controlled allowing improved sense of balance in water.

Social Benefits

Individuals with autism learn how to engage with their instructor, as well as using and sharing toys and equipment. Clinicians report a substantial improvement in initiating and maintaining eye contact during and after the water therapy sessions.

Behavioural Benefits

The calming effects of water tend to last past the session and carry-over on land. Hydrotherapy often results in better moods, better impulse control, improved self-esteem and body image, decreased anxiety and a marked drop in behaviour problems3.

Cognitive Benefits

Aquatic therapy can improve concentration and attention spans of individuals with autism. Aquatic therapy focuses on play-based functional movement, which facilitates neurodevelopmental growth and improves range of motion. It also improves body awareness while giving them something fun to do. Impulse control, the ability to follow instructions and the frustration tolerance improves with aquatic therapy as well.

There are many therapy options for individuals with ASD. Aquatic therapy is a fun therapy with unique properties that allow a variety of benefits that may not be achieved with land-activities. Aquatic therapy is also fun, and allows a child to look forward to therapy while managing autism symptoms.

If you are a parent of a child with ASD or special needs and live in the South Cariboo, you can find support and connect with other families with children who have special needs at:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/100MileSpecialNeedsSupport/members/

References:

1 Pacific Autism Family Network https://pacificautismfamily.com/about-asd/

2 Guan, J., and Li, G. (2017). Characteristics of unintentional drowning deaths in children with autism spectrum disorder. Injury Epidemiology. 4:32

3 Springbrook Behavioural Health. https://springbrookautismbehavioral.com/portfolio-item/aquatic-therapy-for-children-with-autism-is-fun-safe-and-effective/