According to the Aquatic Therapy and Rehabilitation Institute in Florida, USA, Aquatic Therapy is the “use of water & specifically designed activity by qualified personnel to aid in the restoration, extension, maintenance of quality functions for persons.”
The following are some of the ways in which Aquatic Therapy can benefit children with autism:
1. Suitable for Sensory Issues
Children with autism have significant sensory difficulties, and are very distractible. These children over or under react to stimuli in their environment and have very strong reactions to certain textures. The therapist must evaluate the water temperature and the distractions in the aquatic environment. Lighting is an important factor, Children with Autism are very sensitive to light and have been known to react poorly to certain types of lighting. Noise can be an additional factor as most pool environments are noisy.
With these factors taken into consideration, the warm water provides a safe and supported environment, which not only supports the children, but also provides them with hydrostatic pressure that surrounds their body in the water. A majority of clinicians reported a substantial increase in tolerating touch following aquatic therapy.
2. Physical Benefits
Research continues to support the concept that water is the ideal medium in which to exercise or rehabilitate the body. Water provides an environment, which reduces body weight by 90%, decreasing stress or impact on the body. Warm water also reduces spasticity and relaxes muscles.
Engaging in well-directed activities in the water helps the child gauge his own body boundaries better, allows him to regulate the force his body exerts when playing or working on tasks (thereby avoiding hurting himself and others), and improves his posture and coordination.
Furthermore, the amount of energy required to do activities in the water helps decrease the child’s hyperactivity, resulting in a better ability to concentrate on tasks afterwards, improve sleep patterns and eating habits.
A majority of clinicians reported a substantial increase in swimming skills, muscle strength and balance.
Social skills training can be engaged-in during group aquatic therapy sessions with specific skills being targeted. During group sessions, they not only have to work with the therapist, but they have to learn to engage their group mates, share toys and equipment, and experience cooperative and competitive play.
A majority of clinicians reported a substantial increase in initiating/maintaining eye contact as well as increased self-confidence.
It develops a positive mental attitude and promotes self-esteem, preparing the child to successfully engage in interpersonal relations;
4. Cognitive Improvements
For children with Autism aquatic therapy can focus on therapeutic play-based functional movement, improving range of motion, helping to facilitate neurodevelopmental growth, improved body awareness, and most importantly, having fun. One on one sessions of aquatic therapy can help a child with autism to improve their attention span, concentration, impulse control, frustration tolerance and ability to follow instructions.
Due to their communication difficulties, children with Autism respond better to visual cues and specific tangible rewards. Often using picture cards to explain what is requested of the child to do will work much better than verbal directions.
Using rewards is very effective when dealing with children and this also aids in understanding the concepts of time and task completion that children with Autism may have difficulty with.
6. Increased Water Safety
Children with Autism present significant safety risks when in the pool. Their lack of response to verbal commands, and their distracted nature can present great challenges for even the most careful therapists. It is essential to maintain intense supervision of these children at all times, particularly in an aquatic environment. Exposing children with autism to aquatic therapy can increase their familiarity with water, their swimming skills and their understanding of safety hazards around water.