Fairway pool home to special swimming program for kids with autism spectrum disorders

Instructor Natalie Blair works with student Malcom Gist at the Fairway Pool. Photo courtesy Greg Peters, University of Kansas Medical Center.
Instructor Natalie Blair works with student Malcom Gist at the Fairway Pool. Photo courtesy Greg Peters, University of Kansas Medical Center.

The summer swimming season may be winding down, but for a group of metro area kids, trips to the Fairway pool these past several weeks could be life-changing.

For the second year in a row, a group of therapists from The University of Kansas Medical Center gave swim lessons in Fairway to children with autism spectrum disorders.

“These kids, they don’t respond to traditional swimming lessons,” said Jane Cox, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy who served as a program coordinator this summer. “They have differences in how they process sensory information. We have to figure out what their sensory preferences are, and use teaching methods that speak to those preferences.”

With each new student in the program, the therapists do a sensory profile, trying to identify if there are sensory experiences — certain sounds, touches, temperatures, etc.. — to which the students react well or poorly. The teachers then find modifications — a wetsuit for a student who prefers compression on his skin, for example, or tinted goggles for a student who doesn’t like bright lights — to help feel the students feel more comfortable and engaged in the water.

Cox said the program worked with 23 students this past summer, having one-on-one lessons with most students twice a week.

Lisa Mische Lawson, who founded the program and serves as co-director with Cox and Lauren Foster, said the program allows participants to get to a point where both they and their families are comfortable having them around water.

“So far all parents have indicated they feel safer having their kids around water and many tell us they have been able to go to their public pools and visit lakes with friends and family,” she said. “We see big changes in children’s behavior around the pool.”

Mische Lawson said demand for the program — which runs at indoor pools during the fall and winter — is so high that they are looking for additional qualified instructors. The program currently has a waiting list of more than 200. People interested in serving as instructor can contact Mische Lawson via email.

Check out video of the program in action below: