With the broad spectrum of special needs associated with autism, it is good that the spectrum is also receptive to a wide range of intervention methods. Children diagnosed with autism enter life with serious challenges. Learning can be difficult. Communication can be difficult. Showing and receiving affection can be difficult. Performing daily tasks such as eating can be difficult. Even playtime for a child with autism is fraught with sensory interference and disruptive anxieties.
Water may make a difference in the midst of all of these difficulties. Aquatic therapy is being used as an effective recreational treatment but further studies are required to determine the long term results. Even as autism causes pervasive neurobiological deficiencies, there is the ongoing conviction that delayed cognitive functioning can be developed. This is the inspiring assumption behind all intervention methods, including aquatic therapy.
The water environment appears to meet several needs of a child with autism that enables the child to respond well to therapy and grow. The pressure of water is comforting to a child with autism. The warm temperature of water also provides an optimum learning environment for a child. Even though children with autism often under or over react to tactile stimuli, they still need to experience it.
Aquatic therapy provides an appropriate measure of input that does not overwhelm a child with sensory issues but provides enough so the child can develop their ability to process increasing amounts of tactile stimuli. As Laurie Jake, writer of the article “Autism and the Role of Aquatic Therapy in Recreational Therapy Treatment Services” puts it,
“This pressure actually soothes and calms the children, providing the necessary sensory input they crave.”
A child’s negative reaction to sensory input does not mean that child does not inherently want that input. They need to experience it just like every other person needs to experience it, but they need to grow the functioning to process it. Aquatic therapy facilitates this functioning. An article by Hear Our Voices states that,
“a majority of clinicians reported a substantial increase in tolerating touch following aquatic therapy.”
There are other properties of water which may also contribute to the development of a child with autism and sensory hindrances. Water makes the body lighter by 90%, reducing stress on the body during therapeutic exercises. The warm temperature of water calms the muscles, an important feature for children who deal with spasticity and tension in the muscles due to anxiety. Because of these benefits of an aquatic environment, children with autism enjoy their time learning and developing their abilities. The energy required to move against the force of water tends to decrease a child’s excess energy and enhance their sleeping and eating.
There are external factors in the pool environment to consider when it comes to participating in aquatic therapy. These will be discussed in the next article, as well as other potential gains made by children with autism through aquatic therapy.
However, most results reported are anecdotal and similarly to our report earlier this week on massage therapy, more research is required.