According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, swimming is the fourth most popular sports activity in the United States. However, this is countered with the sobering statistic provided by the National Autism Association which states that drowning is the leading cause of death among children in the autism spectrum. No question, learning how
to swim can indeed be a lifesaving skill set. However, for children with special needs, swimming offers the additional benefit of providing what can be an especially empowering and exhilarating experience in a positive setting. From developing gross motor and cognitive skills to
building strength and endurance, swimming fosters courage, confidence and trust. It’s also a social skill that helps cultivate friendships. Then, of course, there’s the physical benefit that all
swimmers enjoy: a low-impact, cardiovascular workout that tones muscles, increases endurance, and helps reduce risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
This makes swimming not just a safety skill, but a life skill to enjoy through the ages.
Thriving, In The Water And Out
A Student Discovers Swimming Skills That Extend Beyond The Pool
The young man glides seamlessly through the water with PJCC swim instructor Laurie Gardner at his side, telling him to, “kick, stroke, kick, and breathe!” Now 16, Connor Kitayama has been taking private swim lessons with Laurie since 2007. His mother, La Donna Ford, initially enrolled her son, who has autism, for swim lessons, but she soon discovered that the lessons also served a valuable role as occupational therapy.
“Connor is an excellent athlete in general, but swimming exposed several unsuspected weaknesses,” says La Donna. “Since using certain body movements is so challenging, he must focus intently to master strokes. I see swimming as a lifelong leisure skill with the bonus benefits of built-in therapy.”
When Connor first started taking lessons as an eight-year old, he wouldn’t get his face wet and could only manage a weak dog paddle despite previous swim lessons at other venues. But over
the years, his proud mother has observed her son blossoming both in the pool and out. Today the young man sports exceptional balance and hand-eye coordination and adores water sports like swimming, jet skiing, kayaking, and wake surfing.
“I’ve watched Connor gain confidence as his swimming progresses,” she says. “His frustration tolerance is much better. For Connor, a lot of life is hard to understand, but he’s learned that through a lot of work, he can improve, and this attitude has extended beyond the pool. Going to a place he likes makes the rest of the week easier,” she adds. “He has something fun to look forward to. He’s also learned to take instruction from different teachers with different vocabulary, which has been an invaluable lesson.”
La Donna credits Laurie Gardner’s teaching skills for her son’s transformation. Laurie, who has been with the PJCC since 2004, has Bachelor of Science degrees in pre-med biology and pychology. She started out as a general swim instructor but began teaching private lessons when she encountered people with special needs who wanted to learn how to swim. Today, her students range from children with Down syndrome and autism to adults who are quadriplegic or have cerebral palsy.
“We feel blessed to have found Laurie, whose patience and belief in Connor has taken him from a poor dog paddler who didn’t pay attention, to a focused teen whose swimming skills continue to impress,” La Donna says. “Swimming at the PJCC has been great for Connor to learn how to act more appropriately socially. It’s also been good for others to understand that there are pople who are wired differently, but we all inhabit the same world.”