Nothing says “Summer” like swimming and splashing at the beach, lake, or pool. The season’s water activities provide a great way to engage the senses and get muscles moving, but it can also be an overwhelming and dangerous time for individuals with special needs and sensory processing difficulties. Whether you’re planning to introduce your child to the local splash pad or planning a trip to a public swimming area, here are a few tips to ensure everyone has a great time.

Water and Environmental Acclimation

First things first: make sure your child can handle all the sights, sounds, and other sensations of public swimming areas. Take some time to familiarize the child with the new sensations they’ll encounter on your swimming outing. Getting them used to textures like hot concrete, warm sand, or sunscreen, as well as the feeling of wet swimsuits, goggles, earplugs and life preservers can help lower the chances of sensory overload. A little time with a sensory tub and a garden hose sprinkler in the backyard can go a long way toward preparing your child for what is to come.

Social stories also play a big part in preparing a child for the rules and behaviors associated with public swimming areas. By reading through a small swimming adventure several times before their visit, children will have a better idea what to expect, which could help reduce some fear and anxiety. You can find several online or try out one of our favorites here.

Finding a Swim Program

Training a child with special needs to be safe around the water is an essential step in protecting them from harm whether they’ll be swimming every day or only a few times a year. It also takes quite a bit of extra care and consideration on the put of the instructor.

Thankfully, there are many instructive swim programs for children and adults with autism and special needs all over the country. These programs typically feature specially-trained individuals who can help teach your child to love the water no matter what their ability level. Do some research online or ask your child’s therapist or pediatrician for recommendations. This list featured on the National Autism Association’s website is a great place to start.

It’s All in the Planning

Before going on a swimming outing, do your research and plan ahead.

If crowds are a concern, find a smaller pool that will be more accommodating and try to go at times when it’s not so busy.

Make sure you pack lots of snacks. Swimming takes a lot of energy, and the last thing you want is a mean “hangry” to make your trip more difficult.

Bring along a bag of sensory toys or other soothing items for when it’s time to take a break. It’s also a good idea to bring along sunglasses to protect against the sun’s glare on the water. A wet bag for placing wet clothes in after swimming can also be helpful, especially if your child doesn’t want to sit in their swimsuit on the way home.

When you get to the pool, make sure to scout out where important areas like changing rooms, first aid areas, and concessions are to make transitioning from one environment to the next easier.

Touch base with lifeguards and pool attendants to make them aware of the child’s unique needs. Communicating the unique abilities and challenges that your child may experience ahead of time is an easy way to make sure that, in the event of an emergency, the staff is aware of the situation.

One of the most important things to keep in mind is the possibility of elopement. Make absolutely certain you prepare for the opportunity of wandering at the pool, beach, or lake before you go by creating solid strategies beforehand. For help planning for a possible elopement event, check out our Elopement Strategies video.

Be Mindful of Limitations

Sometimes, even with planning, things don’t go as you would have thought. While many of these tips can help with some of the anxiety and uncertainty that comes from taking a sensory sensitive or special needs child to a water-focused outing, every kid is different. Whether you’ve been out for an hour, fifteen minutes, or you just paid your admission, if your child needs to go, it’s time to go.

It’s okay! Take the opportunity to continue working on integrating swimming-based sensory experiences into your child’s daily routine through the season. After all, there will be another Summer next year. What matters is the quality time and care that you give them. Even though it might have its challenges, a swimming outing can be a great summertime experience and a worthwhile experience for the whole family.