My cousin told me that I would fall in love with him right away. She knows me well. This 12- year-old has a cheerful, sweet personality and was an absolute pleasure to work with. His mom informed me of his diagnosis: High-functioning autism and Kabuki Syndrome. I’d never heard of Kabuki Syndrome, but after reading about it, can see some indication, predominantly the decreased muscle tone. She also told me that her son had a repaired coarctation of his aorta at 2 weeks old. Seriously? On paper, this sounds so strange and confusing. But in person, it’s a wonderful boy named Matthew- Project: Face in Water Participant #20. Besides, nothing can scare me away from helping someone swim, least of all an autism diagnosis.A couple years ago I volunteered a lot of time working on a book about teaching individuals with autism how to swim. And I’ve worked with many special needs in the water, predominantly autism, so I was ready. I’m always up for a good challenge (more so when specialists say it can’t be done).
Mom and I discussed the limitations doctors and specialists have pointed out, and we both agreed that those are predictions based on research and experience. Matthew’s mom is a teacher and quite an amazing woman herself. Hopeful. Inspiring. She must be a great teacher. We agreed that if anyone can change the ‘norm’ or the ‘expected’ it’s us. Give everything fancy names; diagnose all you want; it doesn’t matter. Matthew is a boy that needed to learn how to swim.
I had heard that Matthew loved to swim, but wore a life jacket when he was in water over his head. This allowed him to play with his friends and have a great time in the water, but as he got older, he realized that the life jacket acted as a ‘crutch’ and he was more than ready to learn how to swim without it. When I asked him, “Why now?” he told me, “It worries me that kids will make fun of me.” The fact that he doesn’t know how to swim on his own was starting to frustrate and embarrass him.
The amount of progress that Matthew made in just an hour was incredible! Like many of my participants, he appeared to be completely comfortable in the pool and at first glance, seemed to be a ‘strong swimmer.’ But he got anxious and panicked when he wasn’t in control. Jumping around in the shallow end without a lifejacket may be easy and seem comfortable, but what happens when the water is overhead? Lifejacket-wearers (in the pool) are perfect participants for Project: Face in Water. They spend their time in the pool with their faces out of the water, instead of in the water. Matthew must be very patient because it was like someone hit the repeat button on me- “Eyes down. Put your face in. Put your face in the water. Eyes in. Face wet. Get your face wet.” Over and over and over.
We went slowly and I used my calm voice as much as possible (yes, I have a calm voice, believe it or not.) I started with the basics- blowing bubbles and floating, and built on each skill from there. This worked very well for Matthew. Once he successfully put his face down, lifted it up to breathe and made it from the shallow to the deep end, Matthew’s self-confidence in the water sky-rocketed.
He kept apologizing when I gave him feedback and constructive criticism. “I’m sorry,” he’d say, with his head hanging down. Mom and I explained that I wasn’t mad at Matthew when I showed or told him how to improve his strokes. I praised strengths, then gave corrections if needed. This is such an important part of teaching- knowing when to give feedback/ when to point out weaknesses/ when to give a simple High 5 or an approving nod/ when to be firm and insist on doing something correctly/ etc. Teaching can be exhausting- I solve individual psychological puzzles all day long. Over the years, I have tested my limitations and boundaries, as well as those of my students. Many times learning is an ongoing roller coaster ride, with ups and downs, twists and turns, screaming (yup), throwing hands in the air and saying, “I’m never doing that again.” I love it- it’s such a natural rush for me to figure out an individual’s comfort zone, then gently push him out of it. I’ve been known to push a bit too much, but that’s all part of the process. Two steps forward, four steps back, six steps forward, two steps back.
I was really excited when mom asked to schedule a lesson for the next day. This time, Matthew brought his grandmother and his brother, Zach to cheer him on. “Prepare to be impressed!” Matthew announced as they entered the backyard. He was so proud of his lifejacket-less accomplishments just twenty-four hours prior and he entered the pool with a huge smile on his face and a new found confidence. His enthusiasm was contagious.
Matthew would get so excited that he would work himself up and not be able to focus or relax. To keep him on task, I held his hands, looked at him and spoke calmly (which again is a challenge for me!). Together, we took a few deep breaths before transitioning to a new skill or focus. Then he would do something else amazing and we would all start clapping and praising him again. By the end, Matthew was like a fish. He was treading water, doing freestyle, working on his breathing, resting on his back, pulling himself out at the wall and jumping from the highest point in the pool. Not bad, Matthew. Not bad at all. Check him out!