Autism Unbound Hosts Adaptive Swim Lessons during Subway Swim Day at Greensboro Aquatic Center

Photo Courtesy: Autism Unbound

By Madilyn Sindelar, Swimming World College Intern.

When young children begin the basic steps of learning how to swim, the main focus is water safety. Simply becoming comfortable in the water is an important skill. This involves floating, blowing bubbles, playing games and singing songs. With drowning as one of the leading causes of death for children, teaching kids how to swim is crucial. However, teaching these life-saving skills is especially important to children with autism or other special needs. Organizations such as Autism Unbound highlight how parents and their kids can have the opportunity to become water safe. 


Photo Courtesy: Autism Unbound

For the past five summers, Autism Unbound has partnered with Greensboro Aquatic Center in North Carolina. The focus is to provide children with autism adaptive swim lessons. According to a study by the National Autism Association, up to 90 percent of wandering-related deaths involving autistic children are due to drowning. The NAA reports that half of the children with autism are prone to wandering from adult supervision. They tend to stray toward an object of fascination, such as water. 

Subway restaurant owners and the GAC felt a need to organize the event after hearing about the high risk of drowning for people with autism. Subway® of Greensboro is a sponsor of the Center and joined with Autism Unbound’s mission.

The annual event is a customized way to bring greater awareness of water safety to our autism community and our community at large. The event is scheduled in early summer to coincide with the time of year families are usually becoming more active in and around water,” Autism Unbound Board of Directors Secretary Krystal Ketner said.

Autism Unbound advocates for education and support.

“The GAC is a specialized facility with certified instructors. Subway is a restaurant seeking to aid individuals to live a healthy and active lifestyle. Working together, we’ve created an educational, recreational, and tasty event that could help save lives,” Ketner explains.

At the event, each participant with autism enters the pool with an adult family member or caregiver. GAC swim instructors meet all individuals where they are in terms of the participant’s safety awareness and swimming skills. 


Photo Courtesy: Autism Unbound

“Activities can include fitting and wearing a life jacket, floating, blowing bubbles with their face in the water, basic swim strokes, using a kick board, holding their breath and submersion, retrieving submerged items, and games designed to teach water safety awareness,” Ketner said.

Instructors also ensure that participants discuss pool rules, the buddy system, and to reach out for help. The adult parent or caregiver is provided with firsthand knowledge that they can share with family and friends.

“Autism Unbound recruits local special educators familiar with autism to assist in the pool. The special educators share information with the GAC instructors about autism, potential sensory issues, and help facilitate communication and instruction,” Ketner said.

Subway provides lunches and T-shirts for those involved.

After the fun in the pool, Subway lunches are provided for families. In addition, they’re given water safety activity booklets, swim lesson information and event T-shirts.

“Subway Swim Day has definitely grown over the past five years. It is one of our most popular family events. There is interest from the Charlotte, NC, area about starting a similar event next year. Visibility of the event in our general community and its popularity with our autism families is bringing an increased awareness not only of autism but of the need for increased water safety awareness for all,” Ketner said.

There are multiple factors when it comes to teaching children with autism how to swim that goes beyond following instructions.

“Personally, I think people with autism best learn water safety awareness and swimming skills by being met where they are in terms of their individual strengths, needs, preferences, and current skill levels,” Ketner said.

The key to a successful event: Trust.


Photo Courtesy: Autism Unbound

“I also believe developing a sense of trust between individuals with autism and their swim instructors is very important. Instructors furthering their understanding and acceptance of autism through educational training, discussions with affected individuals and families, and increased direct instruction with autistic individuals are key components of success,” Ketner said.

Instructors and sponsors encourage families to continue practicing their newly acquired skills for long-term success. Swimming lessons for individuals with special needs are becoming more available and more inclusive, and Autism Unbound desires to influence growth of inclusivity. 

“Autism Unbound’s mission is to enable people affected by autism to live more independent, full lives by influencing the future today. The goal of today’s event is to prevent tragedies while creating more celebrations of success tomorrow and in the future,” Ketner concludes.

Click here to learn more about Autism Unbound.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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  1. Kirsten Prior

    Holly Prior you might find this interesting

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