By Lana Whitehead

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders experience levels of sensory perception that most of us cannot comprehend. However, children with autism are very capable of participating in athletics. In fact, exercise gives them sensory stimulation benefits that do not have negative social implications. Studies have reported that aquatic exercise for children with autism develop them emotionally, cognitively, physically and socially.

Water has many emotional benefits for students with autism. The skin to skin contact and touch with an instructor in the water helps to satisfy the child’s need for tactile stimulation. The warm loving touch from an instructor or care taker provides the child with emotional nourishment that allows him to feel accepted and develops self-esteem. Caring tactile stimulation provides the feeling of attachment, commitment and connection.

The tactile resistance or viscosity of the water has many health benefits for a child within the autism spectrum. Water has 600 to 700 times the density of air. This pressure encourages the growth of the child’s neural pathways and synapses. Tactile stimulation tends to help balance the autistic child’s nervous system.
The viscosity of the water also provides an excellent source of resistance that facilitates muscle strengthening without the need of weights. Using the water’s natural resistance coupled with buoyancy allows an individual with limited physical experience to strengthen muscle groups.

The hydrostatic pressure of the water is an additional benefit of aquatic exercise for children with special needs, especially autism. Hydrostatic pressure is the pressure exerted by a liquid at equilibrium due to gravity. It produces a perpendicular force to the body that decreases stress and increases proprioception. Because the pressure is produced perpendicular to the body’s surface, the contact on the skin assists special needs individuals to become more aware of where their bodies are in space and how they are moving.

In addition, swimming lessons develop self-confidence because the autistic child meets other children and tries new things. Swim class has abundant opportunities to share space with other children and explore movement together. Through active movement in a group, the child gets to know himself and begins to see his connection with the rest of the world. He gets a sense of belonging that builds self-esteem and strengthens social confidence.

Swimming is fun. If a child with autism spectrum is having fun, his brain is more receptive to learning. He learns from his peers by observing and mimicking their interactions with each other. He gradually learns to cooperate within a social structure, to take turns, to share and cooperate. This strengthens his social confidence.

Lana Whitehead is the founder and owner of SWIMkids USA, where instructors supplement Lana’s pioneering swim instruction methods with other child development programs. She is an international speaker, author and media expert who has appeared on shows including TODAY and CBS Early show as well as in the major national parenting magazines. For more information, visit



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