Autism Delaware, YMCA Team Up on Swimming Program for People with Autism

Autism Delaware is collaborating with the YMCA of Delaware to offer a water safety program to children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  Called “S.W.A.M.,” the program is based on the “Swimming With Autism” curriculum developed by the Autism Society of San Diego, California.

Autism Delaware is providing the training to the YMCAs at no cost and in exchange, the YMCA will provide at least two S.W.A.M. sessions in 2019. Currently, the YMCA swim lessons for autism program is underway at the Brandywine Y, and the downtown Wilmington and Sussex Ys will launch the program this summer.

Knowledge of water safety is critical for individuals with autism because they tend to be drawn to water due to its sensory nature. “When a child goes into the water, it can neurally reset them.  If they go under, don’t expect them to necessarily come up,” says Jess Hart, who is training the YMCA aquatic instructors.

People with autism tend to wander or bolt (known as “eloping”) and face a huge risk if they come near water.  According to the National Autism Association, drowning accounts for approximately 90 percent of deaths associated with wandering by children with ASD under the age of 14.

Teaching water safety to people with autism carries its own set of special considerations. “Swim instructors need to be aware of sensory issues,” says Annalisa Ekbladh, director of policy and family services at Autism Delaware.  “They may be more sensitive to the water and to the noise around them. Cognitive processing speed is another issue, as they may process information differently.”

“At the Y, we believe every child deserves the opportunity to learn how to swim,” says Deborah Bagatta-Bowles, YMCA of Delaware President and CEO. “We save lives every day with our drowning prevention initiatives, teaching important water safety skills to children and adults of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. We are pleased that our partnership with Autism Delaware will allow us to expand our services to people with autism, helping to put parents’ minds at ease and teach children how to be confident and have fun in the water safely.”

During their training, the Y aquatics staff are able to work directly with children on the spectrum.  Autism Delaware contacted several of the parents they serve and invited them and their children to participate. The parents are present during the one-day session so that they can observe any issues their children face when they go into the water.

Parents at the Brandywine Y applaud the decision to expand S.W.A.M. Melissa Stansell says her 13-year old son, Ryan, is now ready to take his survival and recreational swimming to a competitive level.

“Ryan has always loved the water,” says Melissa Stansell, “and with the patience and perseverance of the instructors, he is more able to participate fully with his peers, giving him more opportunity for inclusion. Kudos and thanks to Autism Delaware and the Y for this amazing program!”

“Having the YMCAs get training on teaching kids with autism to swim is so important because it helps them understand that kids with autism aren’t different, “ adds Shenique Parham.  ”They just learn differently.  Having the ongoing program at the YMCA helps to bring kids into the community…This way they can learn together with all kids.”

Kala Montgomery has also seen her son benefit from the S.W.A.M. program at Brandywine. “I’ve seen Traycen’s self-esteem and confidence bloom with each passing week,” she notes.

“We ran a small swimming program over several summers that limited the number of people it could accommodate,” says Brian Hall, Autism Delaware executive director. “Through this collaboration with the YMCA on the S.W.A.M. program, we are now providing safe, inclusive, recreational swimming opportunities throughout the year. This is the kind of opportunity that helps build community acceptance.”

Parents and caregivers who would like to enroll a loved one in a YMCA Autism S.W.A.M. program should directly contact the aquatics department at their local YMCA.

About the YMCA of Delaware

The YMCA of Delaware is Delaware’s largest non-profit organization committed to strengthening local citizens through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. With eight branches statewide and an overnight camp and conference center in Worton, Maryland, the Y has developed long-standing relationships and a physical presence in Delaware so it can deliver lasting personal and social change. We are committed to serving everyone – regardless of age, income or background – to nurture the potential of every child and teen, improve Delaware’s health and wellbeing and provide opportunities to give back and support neighbors.


Media inquiries 

Autism Delaware:  Annalisa Ekbladh, 302-224-6020, [email protected]

YMCA of Delaware:  Julie Burns, 302-571-6997, [email protected]


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