Decked out in a stylish pair of bright-red board shorts, Esteban DeJesus was one of the first into the pool for his swim lesson at the Bancroft School in Mount Laurel.
The 15-year-old was completely at ease during the warm-up drills and when it came time for a kick set, he didn’t hesitate to take the board and blast down the length of the pool like a dolphin.
But it was a different story back in May when the pool first opened, and DeJesus, who has autism, wanted nothing to do with water.
“He didn’t like to be splashed; he didn’t like to have water in his face,” said Sylvie Moran, the school’s swim teacher.
That fear of water could have been deadly. One of the leading causes of accidental death for children with autism is drowning. In general, many children in the United States have little or no ability to swim, according to a 2017 study.
Just a week ago, police in Bucks County issued an alert for a 7-year-old boy with autism who had gone missing in Warminster Community Park, where there is a pond. The child, who was later found safe, had a history of hiding in woods and was attracted to water.
The challenge is complicated by the fact that half of those with autism wander or bolt from supervision. Of those kids who disappeared long enough to cause concern, 24 percent were in a place where they could be in danger of drowning, according to a 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics.
Lindsay Naeder, director of the Autism Speaks Safety Initiatives and the Autism Response Team, said many children with autism are drawn toward water.
Though they may fear being in the water, from a distance it can look inviting, not threatening.
“Unfortunately, the core characteristic of autism may impact their ability to understand a sense of danger,” Naeder said.
Getting pool time and affordable lessons for those kids isn’t always easy, she said.
“Flexibility is an important component to make sure children with autism can be included,” Naeder said. Instructors need to know how to adapt to the needs of a child with autism who may have communication or behavioral challenges, she said.
The overall number of swim programs for those with autism is increasing, but more opportunities are needed, Naeder said. Autism Speaks does its best to maintain a list of facilities that offer lessons and they also offer quarterly grants for scholarships, training and equipment needed to teach swimming and water safety, she said.
At Bancroft, a school for 250 students on the autism spectrum, creating an aquatics program was important to the student’s parents. The school partnered with the YMCA of Burlington County, which supplies the lifeguards.
"We wanted to make that time in the pool worthwhile,” said Moran, who has been with the school for 17 years. “It is not just recess; it is not just playtime. We wanted it to have educational value.”
“That has been our driving force, that children be safe in the water,” said Judith Brown, principal.
On average, most of the 250 students — who range in age from 8 to 21 — have swim lessons every other week.
Being in the water also helps students who have mobility or coordination challenges develop their fitness and balance, she said.
It has made all the difference for 13-year-old Elliot Ferrell.
Ferrell has low muscle tone, fine motor problems, and balance issues — common problems for kids with autism — all of which swimming helps, said Amber L. Ciccanti, his mother.
Swimming was a major part of growing up for Ciccanti and her husband, Matthew Ferrell. They expected it would be the same for their son, Elliot. They even have a pool at their Burlington City home.
“He’s been in the pool since he was 6 months old,” she said. “He is like a little fish.”
Even knowing that Elliott is comfortable around the water and can keep afloat if he can’t touch the bottom, the couple installed locked gates to the pool fence, and alarms on the back door that go off when it is opened, she said.
“As responsible parents we do not leave him alone” in the pool, she said.
It was good that they had a pool because Elliot wouldn’t be able to really be himself at a swim club without fear of being judged by others, said Ciccanti.
Ciccanti said she applauds how Bancroft reached out to safety experts when they were designing the pool area at their new 80-acre campus in Mount Laurel and kept those with autism in mind.
The 22-foot ceilings, sound-absorbing materials, soothing colors, and tall, wide windows that bring in natural light can help calm students with sensory issues. The water is kept at a warm 88 to 89 degrees to make sure no one is cold during the lessons. A splash pad located at one end of the pool deck can help acclimate students who are tentative about getting into the water. The splash pad also acts as incentive to encourage students when it is time to get out of the pool.
Moran starts the swim lessons by reinforcing some of the skills the students are learning in their behavioral or occupational classes. The students are also accompanied into the pool by an aide. She breaks swim skills down into small, attainable goals, such as putting their face in the water, sitting on an underwater bench, floating, blowing bubbles, and being able to dunk underwater, come back up and not panic, she said.
After the formal swim instruction was over, DeJesus got to work dunking a ball in a floating hoop, happily bouncing up and down during free play time.
“Now, he is a lot more confident and comfortable in the water," Moran said.