Thursday, August 25, 2011

Magic in Water

 I'm dreading the end of the outdoor pool season.  Indoor pool season just isn't the same.  Where I live indoor pool season means it's gray, cold and dreary outside.  Everything dies;  leaves on trees, grass, flowers, and especially my happiness.  My happiness is inextricably tied to my daughter's happiness.  That happens when you become a parent.  The fact that I have 3 daughters and they're all 8 years old and one is on the autism spectrum means someone (at any given point) is not happy.  Therefore my happiness quotient is usually leveled as well.  But something happens in the summer...something magic.....especially for my daughter, Kate.  You see, there is no "cure" for autism.  But in my house, for Kate especially, there is a magic in water.

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to communicate and be social.  Most people with autism have issues with their sensory system;  things are often too loud, too crowded and generally "too much" to handle. They may not know exactly where their body is in space which is disorienting.  There's a "spectrum" so some people with autism are "high functioning,"  they may seem unusual or quirky.  Some people are "low functioning" so they may not speak at all and have distruptive behaviors.  Kate is somewhere in the middle, I guess.  She speaks but she's not really conversational.  Simple back and forth is about it.  She's learning to play with others and she's giving us much more eye contact.  Things are improving but like the saying goes, it's a marathon not a sprint. 

During the summer, in the sunshine, in the reflection of a clear blue pool, Kate comes alive.  She lives at the pool, she cannot get enough.  It's incredible to see the transformation.  It very much is like a caterpillar emerging from it's cocoon and blossoming into a butterfly.  In the water Kate is much more talkative.  She uses more words to form sentences and she describes things in much more detail.  She looks right at us and she's also extremely playful.  Instead of keeping to herself she commands our attention;  ring around the rosie, jumping into our arms, dunking games and singing songs goes on for hours.  She's connected to us, she's with us, she is a part of us.  

Kate has also learned to swim this summer.  Missy Franklin she's not but she's able to be safe in all depths of water and she can easily swim to the side of the pool.  Her favorite thing to do is float...the poor lifeguards...she floats facing downward and can hold her breath for a really long period of time.  It looks scary if you don't know what she's doing.  She can do that forever.  She taught herself a breaststroke kick this summer.  I don't know how-she must have seen her sisters do it since they were working on it all summer.  Drowning is the number one cause of accidents/death for children with autism so her safety was paramount.  I don't care if she doesn't know who George Washington is...the kid's gonna swim. 

There's something about the warm sun on her face and the water.  As fall approaches I'll take her to the indoor pool and even have her splash around in the tub (which has always been calming for her) but it's not the same.  Over the next few years we're looking at moving somewhere warm again.  As beautiful as it is to watch her emerge during the spring and summer it's heart breaking to watch her fade away in the fall and winter.  We get used to "having her around" not just in body but in spirit.   It's the greatest gift.  I treasure every moment.  I take hundreds of pictures and probably hours of video of her "alive," happy, connected, laughing, looking right at us, asking us to play, giggling with glee and precious moments.  Because there's magic in water.


  1. I love this! I work at a swim school in Atlanta, and we're known as one of the few places not just willing but also enthusiastic about working with kids on the autism spectrum and other special needs. We love seeing the magic you describe. From a scientific standpoint, certainly the all-over pressure of the water is great sensory training while the buoyancy compensates for motor skill difficulties, but from an emotional point of view, yes, it is magical. Some of our nonverbal students have said their first words in the pool, to our teachers. Many of their parents have told us about the great strides forward their children have made during their dryland lives thanks to learning to swim. Keep up the great work, Kate and Lisa!

  2. I've seen the phenomenon you've described before as well too. In my first year of coaching I taught a private swim lesson with an autistic child named Hannah. Hannah wouldn't even talk to me on dry land but once we got into the pool she had a dramatic change in personality. She was having the time of her life and would, as we were doing the lesson, develop quite a motor mouth. It was probably the most fun I had teaching a lesson as well and I often think about Hannah and her mom, who was very cool and spoke Danish from a year she spent studying abroad.

  3. I bet they remember you, too. We moms of special needs kids have special places in our hearts for people like teachers, therapists, etc. who have had significant impacts on our kiddos.

    Oh the water I can't shut her up. She's all over me. It's insane. Insanely wonderful.

    When I take her to meets she wants to swim. She knows it's a competition but she still wants to get in the pool. She cheers everyone on, she totally understands the concept. I'm waiting for the day she jumps in with Phelps and Lochte during an IM.

  4. What a wonderful story - thank you for sharing with us.

  5. I once had an administrator stop by the pool while one of the special needs classes was with me and he was astonished: we had eight students with autism there and the entire class was playing in the deep end and going off of the diving board. I sometimes marvel at how "at home" many of our students with autism feel in the pool, and how much they actually absorb from my class just by being part of the group and being given the chance to explore the environment.
    Wonderful story, Lisa. I will miss outdoor season as well. My little girls both jumped off the diving board for their first time this week and are completely jazzed about swimming in grandma's pool. (yes, the tornado took the house, but not the pool!)

  6. Thanks, Jim. Glad you liked it.

    Viking: You're the best part of these kid's day. Guaranteed. Their parents should write into each one of their IEPs they should spend the whole day with you in the pool.

    Grandma has a pool? We'll be right over.

  7. Lisa this is amazing and brought a tear to my eye. I love your kids and Kate has a very special place in my heart. I wish I could see her in the pool. Spending the time I did with you family, her and I danced, sang and I got hugs and kisses. I beleive in alternitive ways to help kids and this def seems to be a positive thing for Miss Kate..


  8. Beautiful post...thank you!