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Sunday 28 May 2023 Dublin: 11°C
# water therapy
How a dip in a pool can help open up a new world for children with autism
Research shows that water therapy for children with autism can relax them, satisfying sensory needs, and making them more open to communicating with others and learning.


TOMMY WAS DIAGNOSED with autism at the age of two and epilepsy when he was six.

“He would be classed as pre-verbal,” his mother Nicola Ryan told, “He had some speech but lost it around the age of three. We’re getting more language out of him, he’s making slow but steady progress and learning Lámh sign language.”

The family’s main aim is to get Tommy more engaged with the world around him as he’s “quite happy to stay in his own little world, running around and climbing up shelves all day long”.

The best way to do this? A dip in his local pool.

For most children, learning to swim poses little difficulty, but for children with autism it can prove challenging. The usual methods to teach the different strokes may not quite click, and muscular issues could make moving through the water a challenge.

Water therapy

But some research shows that water therapy for children with autism can relax them, satisfying sensory needs, and making them more open to communicating with others and learning – at least in the short-term.

For Tommy, water therapy has allowed him to learn new skills and interact with his local community – as well as giving him and his siblings an activity they can all happily take part in.


“In a very general sense, it’s given us as a family a new activity we can all do together.”

On the surface, the therapy itself is simple: Tommy learns swimming techniques, and plays games in the water such as diving to retrieve small toys (his instructor took advantage of his love of the feeling of deep pressure and turned it into a game).

Tasks like these usually pose a difficulty for Tommy. Nicola explained that the fact he is now able to follow these instructions and copy the actions of others is hugely significant, and helps him to build skills he will be able to use out of the water.

“It sounds simple, but for Tommy it was a really big step.”

He’d be more comfortable at home with us, but he’s getting out into the community and learning to trust other people and to follow instructions and copy, which is great for him.
He’ll be going to a surf camp this summer. He has started kayaking. It has opened up more opportunities for him.

Tommy also has a sleep disorder, and swimming helps him get his sensory needs out of his system and to tire him out, meaning he is sleeping more soundly at night.

The activity is not limited to a child’s local swimming pool.

A number of surf camps for children with autism – and often aimed at anyone facing physical, mental, emotional or behavioral challenges – have been set up in recent years, inspired by work done in the United States.

Tom Losey runs Liquid Therapy, based in Bunodran, and says 95% of the children who attend the classes have autism. Each child receives a one-on-one class with a surf instructor, but the lessons won’t have an exact aim.

He said the goal of the centre is to cater for children who may not be able to take part in the usual mainstream activities.

thomas losey / YouTube

The child is helped through their own individual challenges to the best of their ability – “Because of this, we make sure each lesson is a success,” Tom said.

“Surfing is just the medium, it’s aimed at engaging the children in areas they might not be strong on such as communication skills.

“Some of them will have never set foot on a beach, others will never have been in the water.”

However, the courses they run are massively oversubscribed, meaning the number of children they can provide classes to is limited.

Tom said the lessons can have a profound effect on some children. One boy hated the feeling of sand and refused to stand on the beach. He had to be carried into the water.

“After a couple of waves, he ran out of the water and up the beach to his parents, smiling and happy.”

Another family had four children with autism, and were able to have them all in the water playing together.

While no long-term studies of the effects of water therapy have been carried out, some studies back up the apparent effects. An analysis of four different studies carried out found all came to the same conclusion – “all the studies showed some improvements in social interactions or behaviors”.

Tommy is raising money for Saplings Special School, Rathfarnham, by swimming ten lengths of the pool at the Swan Leisure Centre in Rathmines. More details of the event are available here.

Read: Mother to wait 11 months for ‘early intervention’ appointment for daughter with autism >

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