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Swimming and life lessons rolled into one

Eric Poniatowski

When it comes to taking the plunge, Au-Some Swimmers has given participants on the autism spectrum life lessons that help them do more than just stay afloat.

This program of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo Holland Family Building offers its Western New York participants a program designed to teach critical life skills and provide a gathering place for families to connect and support each other. The program began in July 2013 as a collaboration between the JCC and the Children’s Guild Foundation Autism Spectrum Disorder Center at Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, a multidisciplinary center for evaluation and diagnosis of ASDs in Western New York. It has given the 60 children who have participated in Au-Some strong swimming skills in a supportive environment that fosters engagement.

“Teaching a child diagnosed with autism requires patience and the ability to adapt when the lesson does not go as planned,” says instructor Laura Prendergast. “My students have become more comfortable in the water and in many cases strong independent swimmers.”

Lessons are offered three times a week in half-hour sessions. All Au-Some Swimmers instructors are American Red Cross Lifeguard, First Aid, CPR, AED certified. The curriculum follows the American Red Cross Learn to Swim Program. And instructors demonstrate skills such a feet first entry, putting face in the water, kicking, and pulling. The instructors also communicate with children using laminated visual cards that illustrate pool safety and swim skills. Relationship building and social interaction are key aspects of Au-Some Swimmers; each week the child works with the same instructor.

In Au-Some Swimmers, the child receives a private swim lesson (one instructor to one student ratio), however it not just a program for the child; Au-Some Swimmers is for the whole family! Parents and siblings are invited into the pool to help with the swim lesson. The families are also welcome to play together in the pool after the lesson.

Since 2013, 60 children have participated in Au-Some Swimmers, and 90 percent have enrolled in multiple sessions. Larkin Walling, 14, has attended Au-Some Swimmers since the summer of 2014. And her mother, Kerrin Wallig, has been pleased with her progress.

“Our entire family loves this program,” she says. “All of the staff at the pool are friendly, fun, and genuinely care about the work that they do with our children.”

Au-Some Swimmers mom Dana Marciniak agrees. “This program gives my 5 year old son, Ian, and so many other children who live with autism, the opportunity to not only learn to swim, but develop life-saving skills on their terms surrounding by people who fully support them. I feel extremely lucky to have a program like Au-Some Swimmers in our area and would love to see more children have the chance to experience what we have.”

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