SINGAPORE: Like any parent, Madam Jennifer Ng had concerns about her nine year-old son’s safety when he first started learning how to swim six years ago.
“He was only three, which is actually very young, and I thought the water is so deep, so how is he going to swim when he can’t even stand at the time? How is he able to take care of himself in the water?” she recounted. “There were quite a lot of safety issues that I had to think about.”
But her fears were compounded by the fact that her son, Choon Khang, was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that primarily affects body movement and muscle coordination.
Nonetheless, in just six years, Choon Khang has learnt how to float, swim the backstroke, and looks forward with excitement to his weekly swimming lesson, held every Saturday afternoon at Jalan Besar Swimming Complex.
“For five days a week he goes to school and deals with teachers, lessons and homework, so Saturday is something that’s very different for him,” said Mdm Ng. “And whenever he’s in the water, he feels very confident.
“There are quite a lot of sports he cannot engage in, so I hope he can at least do well in one sport, and from there he can build up self-esteem and confidence and know that he is good at this one thing,” she added.
Parents like Mdm Ng are driving the increasing demand for swimming lessons tailored specially for children with special needs. Swim schools and coaches Channel NewsAsia spoke to said demand has been going up, particularly in the last one to two years.
Choon Khang’s swim coach Danny Ong said his swim school, AquaFins, used to receive “two or three calls” every few months enquiring about lessons for children with special needs. But he now gets the same number of calls in a matter of weeks.
“I would say that especially after the ASEAN Para Games last year hosted by Singapore, and the recent launch of the Centre for Expertise for Disability Sports, that really created more awareness and we’re receiving even more enquiries than before,” said Mr Ong, who has been training those with special needs for 20 years.
“The calls cover almost all types of disabilities, from physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities and neurological disabilities like autism, and I also see a small number of people with hearing or visual impairments,” he added.
Demand has also been going up at another school, Swish Swimming. Its founder, Kristen Romain, said she has seen a rise in the number of “Stressless” classes her school runs. “These classes cater for children with an extreme fear of water, and that fear could have risen from a drowning experience, or arise from a mild special need like autism,” she said. “We started with one class, but now we’ve got about seven to eight, subject to pool space and coach availability.”
SCHOOLS COMING ON BOARD
But the bulk of the demand for Ms Romain’s classes comes from a school – the Melbourne Specialist International School (MSIS). The school, which caters to children with special needs between the ages of 3 to 18, has made swimming lessons an integral part of its curriculum.
“With children with special needs, you want to work with different textures, different mediums, and water is one of the things that the kids love,” said the school’s principal, Daryl Van Hale. "Water is very soothing for a lot of our kids, and they really do light up as soon as they get into the pool.”
A swimming lesson for students from the Melbourne Specialist International School. (Photo: Lianne Chia)
Each class in the school, which has 60 students, gets a half-hour group lesson per week at Swish Swimming, which is a five-minute walk from the school’s campus at Loewen Road. The cost of the lessons is included in the school’s fee structure.
Mr Van Hale said the difference in the children is evident. “A lot of our kids tend to be very insecure and frightened of things,” he said.
“But to be able to go and learn a skill, learn a stroke, to go into the water and not be afraid…that really boosts their confidence level more than anything else. That’s probably one of the most important benefits for our kids.”
In fact, the school’s focus on swimming has attracted parents like Inna Harbove, who said the in-curriculum swimming lessons were a primary reason for sending her daughter, Veronika, who has behavioural issues and anxiety, to MSIS. “Veronika’s been swimming since she was six months old, and it’s really a plus to have these lessons. She’s calmer and her learning abilities have improved. Instead of yelling and screaming, she’s more calm and collected, and knows what to do,” she said.
“We are really happy with the activities and that the school has given them the opportunity to do this kind of thing.”
But tailoring such classes to suit the children can be a challenge, according to Ms Romain. “Often with these children, they have complicated diagnoses and they all develop in different ways,” she explained. “In a mainstream swimming class, you can group them by age and know what to expect in that age group or swimming ability, but with children with special needs, you can’t do that.”
She said in general, she recommends that children with special needs start off with a one-on-one lesson first, before moving on to group classes.
Children with special needs, particularly those with autism, could also be over-stimulated by the environment in the swimming pool, added Mr Ong. “That’s when they can’t cope with the external stimulus, and can result in what we term as a meltdown, where they cry and scream because they want to get out of their uncomfortable situation.”
“So we have to slowly calm the child down, and re-introduce the environment to the child.” This could, he said, involve giving ear plugs to children who are over-sensitive to noise. “It might take a few more lessons to get them used to the environment, but we do not stop them from coming, and as long as we can craft the lesson properly, we can get the child into the water again,” he added.
Swim coach Danny Ong with the adapted equipment he uses to teach children with special needs. (Photo: Lianne Chia)
Mr Ong also uses special teaching equipment, like a pictorial system for children with autism and intellectual disabilities. “The board spells out what they need to do, so they can follow through,” he explained. “After they finish a task, they take it out and put it at the bottom. This way, the child can anticipate what is happening.”
Both coaches added that water safety is especially important, particularly for children with special needs.
“They often have a higher interest and lower ability to understand the consequences and the dangers of water,” explained Ms Romain. “So they are more interested in being near it, particularly autistic children, who find water calming and like to be in it, but they don’t necessarily understand the fears that go with it,” she said.
Mr Ong expressed the same concern, adding that there are statistics in the United States that show how children with autism have a higher drowning rate as compared to their peers. “That’s one of the reasons why water safety is a key component of my lessons, and also why parents should really put their child through swimming lessons,” he said.
And in a group setting, like the lessons Swish Swimming holds for MSIS students, special care is taken to ensure that every child is kept under close watch.
“We always have a strict one-to-three ratio in the pool, sometimes higher depending on the students,” said Mr Van Hale. “Our teachers will get in the pool as well, and sometimes I get in as well, if they don’t have enough adults to children in the pool…I’m happy to do it, it’s a lot of fun.”