GREENFIELD — Aydan Miller used to be terrified of water.
Aydan has been diagnosed with autism, and his mother, Samantha Miller of Greenfield, has long feared what might happen if Aydan were to break away from his parents and fall into the water.
But after a season of the adaptive swimming program offered by Families United for Support and Encouragement, the 5-year-old is calm and relaxed in the pool at Hancock Wellness Center in Greenfield, bobbing along on a green foam flotation device, bracketed by volunteer helpers.
Organizers said they hope to build even more success stories as they welcome an experienced new instructor to the program; Carolyn Sprehe of I Can, We Can Pediatric Therapy of Indianapolis, who boasts more than two decades of experience teaching people with disabilities, will now lead the nonprofit’s aquatic therapy programming.
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The program, which began in Hancock County in 2002, works with children with varying disabilities and adapts to their skill level; the classes, which are capped at 15 students to ensure individualized attention, begin by familiarizing swimmers with the water, then progress to learning how to float before moving on to more advanced swimming skills, organizers said.
Parents said the program is a fun alternative to traditional physical therapies, while aquatic therapy experts point to the myriad effects of putting a child with disabilities in a weightless environment. In the water, they can move more easily and exert better control over their bodies, building strength as well as confidence. The water can also have a calming effect on children with behavioral issues, studies show.
Sprehe, who has been teaching water safety and swimming skills to people with disabilities since 1999, helped establish Show Me Aquatics and Fitness, a St. Louis-area physical therapy center focused on aquatic therapy for people of all skill levels.
Sprehe, who is working to attain her master’s of occupational therapy at the University of Indianapolis, said she aims to help promote healthy habits for swimmers like those with Down Syndrome, who face an increased risk of weight gain as they are, and provide a fun atmosphere where swimmers with autism can blossom socially.
“I have seen kids so terrified of water they won’t even get into the pool learn how to swim,” she said. “I’ve seen them progress to being on a Special Olympics swim team or participating on their high school swim team.”
The focus of adaptive therapeutic programs like this is to help children with special needs to learn swimming skills but also to integrate the children into mainstream settings and help them have fun with their peers, said Kelly Donley, founder of I Can, We Can Pediatric Therapy.
“We feel that sense of joy and excitement as they are going to something that’s fun for them,” Donley said. “Something like swimming or gymnastics is different from hours of clinical-based therapy in an office setting.”
This year, as the latest class of swimmers embarks on its eight-week session, organizers with FUSE say they’re excited to put Sprehe’s expertise to the test. I Can, We Can Pediatric Therapy is donating the majority of Sprehe’s time, while FUSE is paying a nominal weekly cost, Arland said.
“We are so happy to have her,” said Amy Borgmann, who co-founded FUSE alongside Denise Arland in an effort to provide support to families raising children with disabilities.
People of all ages and abilities participate in FUSE’s adaptive swim program, from kids as young as 5, like Aydan, to 18-year-olds. Each swimmer is paired with one or two volunteers, who help them with their skills in and around the water. The program runs the eight weeks prior to Thanksgiving every year, Arland said.
Sprehe said she was able to hit the ground running, thanks to the program’s organization.
“The program is wonderful,” she said. “We have a ton of volunteers, and they’re very willing to try different activities with the kids and help with swimming or water safety skills.”
Gavin Paxton, 6, couldn’t wait to get in the water on a recent evening — while volunteers partnered with swimmers and signed in before class began, Gavin politely but persistently asked his mom when he could get in the pool.
“May I go, please?” he asked.
In the year and a half since joining the adaptive swim program, Gavin has learned how to kick in the water, blow bubbles and otherwise familiarize himself with the water, said his mother, Chrissy Paxton of Greenfield. The first week of this year’s program, he was able to swim by himself for a while.
Sprehe and FUSE’s founders agree aquatic therapy should have a dual purpose — to have fun and make progress when possible, Arland said.
Participants in the adaptive swim program benefit not only from Sprehe’s knowledge but also the therapeutic temperature of the pool at Hancock Wellness Center, Arland said.
The heated pool makes for a steamy evening for parents seated alongside the pool, but most don’t seem to mind. Juanita and Kenny Swallers recently spent the evening cheering on their son, Nicholas, 18, as he swam down the lane of the pool with the help of a foam pool noodle. Nicholas, who has Down syndrome, gave his dad a fist bump, then gleefully sent a wave of pool water splashing toward him.
Nicholas Swallers’ ease in the water provides no small amount of comfort to his parents.
“It’s a relief,” his father said. “We live by a pond, and we’re a little less nervous now that he knows swimming.”
The next step is to encourage him to swim independently — without the pool noodle, he said.
Miller said parents are encouraged watching not only their own children’s progress but others in the class.
“It’s awesome to see one come from not being able to swim to being a model for the other kids,” she said.
The Adaptive Swim program hosted by Friends United for Support and Encouragement teaches swimming skills and water safety skills to non-swimmers and beginning swimmers with disabilities age 5 to 15 who need to build their skills to be independent in the water. Each swimmer is paired one-to-one with a volunteer. The program is $80 per student, but some scholarships are available. The eight-week program is held each fall at Hancock Wellness Center in Greenfield. For questions, call Denise Arland, Executive Director, at 462-9064 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carolyn Sprehe graduated with a bachelor’s of science in exercise science from Northeast Missouri State/Truman University and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in occupational therapy at the University of Indianapolis. Carolyn has been employed in a variety of aspects of aquatics for 25 years, including: lifeguard, adaptive aquatics, swim instructor, providing aquatic exercise, trainer, consultant, and manager of therapists who utilize aquatics as a treatment option. She administered aquatic exercise and therapy programs for ShowMe Aquatics & Fitness in the St. Louis metropolitan area for 12 years. She has provided adaptive aquatic services to individuals with the following diagnoses: Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Spinal Cord Injury, Muscular Dystrophy, Traumatic Brain Injury, Multiple Sclerosis and other diagnoses. She has presented for the Aquatic Therapy and Rehabilitation Institute (ATRI). Carolyn received the 2003 Outstanding Recreation Provider Award sponsored by the Recreation Council of Greater St. Louis. She currently provides adaptive aquatics and swim lessons for I Can We Can Pediatric Therapy in Indianapolis, Indiana.