As a tot, Jonny Pierce, now 24, loved to float with his ears underwater to drown out the everyday noise. Competitive swimming has turned out to be a helpful coping mechanism for his autism and hypersensitive hearing.
On the other end of the spectrum, Kylie Cervantes, who has autism, used to hate having water on her face. With the care of her instructors in an adaptive aquatics program at Best Day Foundation, however, she ended up enjoying her first adaptive surfing experience at age 4.
However they feel about swimming, children should learn to be safe around water. Studies show that children with disabilities are at greater risk of drowning than those without. “In water, even kids who can’t walk can be upright and move through the water to get to where they need to go,” says Teri Todd, Ph.D., director of clinical operations at the Center of Achievement, the adaptive aquatics program at Cal State Northridge. “If a child falls in a pool, they can come to the surface and move to the side of the pool.”
The L.A. area has an array of adaptive aquatic programs that help kids learn to swim, be safe and have fun while strengthening their bodies.
CSUN’s campus-based adaptive aquatics and land-based therapeutic exercise programs double as a training ground for students and professionals in health and rehabilitation-related fields.
In the adaptive aquatics program, kinesiology students work one-on-one and two-on-one with kids ages 3 and older in a group setting. The classes, which meet twice a week during the semester, emphasize water skills, water safety, balance and mobility. Each session ends with a group activity for socialization.
For students like 13-year-old Zael Samayoa, who has spastic cerebral palsy, the program is a game changer. “He never thought he could swim on his own,” says his mother, Doris. Swimming also helps loosen Zael’s tight muscles, relaxing him and reducing his muscle pain.
Zael’s favorite part of swim class is the group activity, when kids are encouraged to throw balls and play water games. And now that he swims, Zael can enjoy pool time with Gael, his twin brother, who does not have a medical condition. “They both love swimming and spending time in the pool playing games,” Doris says. The university setting has even motivated Zael to attend college one day.
The Rose Bowl Aquatics Center in Pasadena offers several adaptive and inclusive aquatic programs that focus on swim and social skills, and are all taught by physical and occupational therapists.
Half-hour adaptive swim classes for beginner to advanced pupils have a teacher-student ratio of one-to-three. Last year, the center added a community adaptive swim group that emphasizes social skills, teaching kids appropriate social behaviors in a group setting. “We aren’t just working on swim skills, these are life skills,” says Alethea Crespo, MPT, director of therapy programs. “It’s also a chance for peers to have a network of friends.”
The center also offers an Adaptive Community Exercise and Swim group (ACES) for those with physical disabilities. Kids who like racing can try out for the Rays swim team for ages 6 to adult, which hosts five meets each year. To join, they must be able to swim 25 yards independently across the pool.
Upon request, the center provides aquatic physical therapy, which addresses sensory and neurological conditions and orthopedic impairments.
Competitive kids may like Special Olympics, which provides year-round competition and training in various sports to athletes ages 8 and older who have intellectual disabilities. A physician’s report is required to join Special Olympics, which is free to athletes and their families. Athletes are grouped by gender, age and ability.
“We encourage athletes to train a minimum of eight weeks to be eligible for competitions,” says Jeff Van Fossen, assistant vice president of sports and programs. “Most do 14 weeks of training, with a minimum of two hours a week. We have lots of competition opportunities.”
The competitions and awards ceremonies are a big deal to Jonny Pierce, who competes in swim and several other Special Olympics sports. Pierce joined Special Olympics in 2010 while on his high school varsity swim team. He won four gold medals at his first Special Olympics swim meet. “When they put him on the podium and everyone recognized him, he was so excited,” says his dad, Tim, adding that Jonny also holds 23 American Paralympic Records. “In Special Olympics, they make a big deal announcing names and awarding medals. It’s the recognition, it’s like the real thing.”
Special Olympics is a family affair for the Pierces. Tim says that since parents aren’t usually allowed on the pool deck, he and his wife, Irene, became certified coaches so they could be with their son during practice. Jonny, currently training for a USA Special Olympics competition in Seattle in July, is also a certified coach.
One with the Water is a year-round inclusive aquatics program for all ages, with a focus on adaptive swim lessons. Its Dolphin swim program is designed for kids with cognitive or physical challenges, and the semi-private and private sessions take place at various swim locations in L.A.
“No matter what your ability is, we will help you become the best swimmer you can be,” says Kenneth Rippetoe, founder and adaptive athletes specialist. His swim staff has worked with individuals with disabilities for more than 10 years.
There are three or fewer students per class. Depending on their needs, lessons might be private. During class, and depending on their skills, kids will swim, play water games and dive for toys.
Diagnosed with autism and cerebral palsy, 10-year-old Declan is a cautious child who does not speak. Prior to private lessons with Rippetoe a year ago, he couldn’t swim and was fearful, says his mom, Elizabeth Sites. Swimming has increased his mobility. “He gets some exercise and that’s enjoyable. It gives him space where he is actively engaged, face-to-face with Kenneth,” says Sites.
Families seeking inclusive group aquatics programs will find good value through the county, which offers classes and maintains splash pads at 23 neighborhood parks. “We foster inclusion and access for all,” says Tiffany Diaz, an adaptive physical education teacher in the Long Beach Unified School District.
The pools have ADA-compliant chairlifts, and adaptive swim lessons take place at the Norman S. Johnson Aquatic Center, Loma Alta Pool and Belvedere Aquatic Center. At Belvedere, there’s a therapy pool with ramps and water wheelchairs. The two-week group-swim lessons for ages 6 months and older meet for 45 minutes a day at a cost of just $20. Class ratio is 10 students to one teacher.
There are five swim levels, beginning with a preschool class for ages 6 and younger. In beginner levels, students are taught water safety and survival skills. In levels 2-5, they learn swim strokes and endurance, diving and treading water. “I teach instructors about breaking down the skills to ways that are relatable to students,” says Diaz, who encourages parents to explain their child’s challenges to the instructor.
The department also collaborates with local schools to provide swim lessons in summer to about 100 kids with disabilities. In addition to classes, all-inclusive programs include swim teams, dive teams, water polo, synchronized swim and aquatic yoga.
Trying a new sport can be exhilarating, especially for kids whose fears turn to joy after a thrilling adventure. That’s the idea behind Best Day Foundation, a volunteer organization that helps kids with disabilities build confidence and self-esteem through adventure activities. The day-long family events are free after the initial $30 administrative fee, says Los Angeles Chapter Chairperson Shanden Brutsch. Wetsuits, helmets, equipment and lunch are provided.
It was during a beach event that Kylie Cervantes confided to Best Day volunteer Geoffrey Capell her discomfort with water. “I sat with Kylie for a while and finally got her on a board,” says Capell. “When I rode a wave in with her, her mom couldn’t stop crying.”
On beach days, Best Day volunteers arrive around 7:30 a.m. to set up tents, equipment and a play area. As families arrive at 9 a.m., each child is paired with a beach buddy. The fun begins with an obstacle course. Kids walk, run or are wheeled through the course as volunteers cheer them on. Next, kids can play in the sand or get in the water on a tandem surfboard with a beach buddy. After water play, it’s time for lunch and an awards ceremony. All kids get a medal and goodie bag.
Cervantes’ mom, Crystal, can’t say enough good things about Best Day and its volunteers. Not only did Kylie – who doesn’t like cold water or sandy toes – have a great day at the beach, but Best Day included her older sister, Skye (who doesn’t have disabilities), in activities. “We’re looking forward to summer to go back to the beach and build on this experience,” says Crystal.
Mimi Slawoff is a mom of three and a frequent contributor to L.A. Parent.