The Children's Institute Blog

Swimming With Autism: Ollie's Story

Posted: Apr 10, 2018 by The Children's Institute

Amanda Kotts – the mother of Ollie, a five-year-old Pittsburgh boy with autism – knew the statistic.

According to a 2012 National Autism Association report, 91 percent of accidental deaths that occur when a child or young adult with autism elopes or wanders are related directly with drowning.

Blythe Westendorf – an occupational therapist at The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh working on her doctoral project – heard the news.

Avonte Oquendo, a boy with autism, escaped his school in New York City in 2013 and drowned nearby.

So, with Ollie, Blythe launched a program that will teach children with autism how to swim – and all of the cumulative improvements that go along with it. We feature them today as part of Autism Awareness Month and National Occupational Therapy Month.

Ollie was the pilot for the program, taking to swimming therapy three times a week for 12 weeks. That might sound like a lot but it wasn’t until Week Seven that Ollie started to flourish. And did he flourish! He learned to doggie-paddle, float on his back when tired, stand and walk near poolside (instead of running or jumping into water without warning), and get in and out of the pool safely.

“None of those things could he do before,” said Blythe, who is developing the program as part of her doctoral project.

“He’s so drawn to the water but he has no sense of danger,” Amanda – who works for The Children’s Institute – added. “The number one driver for this was safety.”

Today, Ollie swims each week at an indoor pool and, to watch him swim here at The Children’s Institute, you would never know he previously couldn’t function well in water.

Blythe and Amanda both said the program, for which Blythe is seeking funding, meets a huge need in the community.

“I’ve never been able to find a program in the Pittsburgh area,” Amanda said. “I don’t feel you can take a child with no experience and extra challenges to a typical swim class. When Blythe asked us about this program, I was like, ‘YEAH!’”

“In this area, there are no swimming programs that are tailored for kids with special needs – it meets a need that’s pretty robust,” Blythe said.

For at least one young kid with autism, the results speak for themselves.

“I hope this gets the word out – this is an essential program,” Amanda said. “I think a lot of parents are going to want to be part of this.”

Venture Outdoors is pretty impressed, too. The Pittsburgh-based organization has teamed with The Children’s Institute since 2015 to provide adaptive kayaking courses here for kids and young adults with special needs.

“By participating in our adaptive kayaking program, children can overcome their fears about the water, understand and prepare for being around water, and improve social skills and teamwork with peers,” Program Director Ian Brown said. “We believe it is vitally important that everyone, including those on the autism spectrum, has the opportunity to experience how fun and valuable outdoor recreation can be.”

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