Making The Effort
by Raphael James
“Polo”, I responded.
SMACK! Her hand found the top of my head with great ease in the quickest game of Marco Polo that the world of water sports has ever seen. Being named Marco Polo Champ in a very tiny pool may not be such a big deal. But playing and splashing with her brother who has been diagnosed with autism and hates having water over his head…THAT is monumental.
The irony of all of this, is that raising a child on the spectrum can be a lot like playing Marco Polo in the ocean.
All of his life, Grant has had sensory issues concerning water. He dreads getting his hair washed because he doesn’t like the water getting in his face. We want him to learn to swim, but it’s been a major struggle getting him to put his face in the water.
While covering the Surfers Healing surfing camp out at Folly Beach I met a woman who sponsors the event. Tara Girch and her husband Marty run the MarTar swim school in Maryland. They specialize in teaching children with special needs how to swim. I told Tara about Grant and asked her for some tips (you can watch what she said here).
She eagerly gave me advice like making sure we got someone to teach him who is trained and skilled at working with children on the autism spectrum. She also stressed how important it was that we do things at home to help ease Grant’s fear of the water.
Grateful for the information, I went out and bought a kiddie pool and goggles; convinced that my child would be the next world-class swimmer one way or the other. I inflated the pool, filled it with water and told the kids, “Jump in!”
The girls did so, but Grant wasn’t having any parts of it. He whined. He resisted. He ran away. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I went upstairs put on my swim trunks and climbed into the pool with him.
Now for the goggles. Tara told me that the goggles would keep the water out of his eyes, and that once he got comfortable with that it would be easier to get him to put his head under the water. That was easier said than done. He fought me. He did not want those goggles over his face. His older sister put the goggles on and said, “Watch, Grant” then her head disappeared below the water. He watched in amazement but still wasn’t convinced. I put my face under the water. When I came back up the look on his face said, “That’s wonderful, but don’t expect me to do it!”
I ran down Tara’s list of tips in my mind. I turned to Grant and splashed water making sure it got in his face! This time he and his younger sister went crazy! My dreams of Olympic Gold were starting to fade.
Then a funny thing happened. As Jaydn and I were playing “Marco Polo” we noticed Grant put his face near the water. We looked at each other in amazement. He’s really going to try it! We began to encourage him and before long he briefly dipped his face in the water. Even stranger, shortly afterwards, so did his little sister. She’s perhaps even more afraid of the water than he is. This was great. At some point during this exercise Grant decided that he WANTED to do what he saw us doing. He convinced himself that if WE could do it there was no way that he COULD NOT do it. He was determined to overcome his fear. He was determined to have fun with the rest of the family.
We stayed in the water a little longer then headed inside for dinner, except, now Grant didn’t want to come in. I had to dump the water out of the pool to get him to come inside. I felt pretty good about our accomplishments that day. There was hope still that my son could become a world-class swimmer.
We are encouraged now to find him a swim instructor who “gets” children with autism. He has demonstrated that he can confront his fears, and we are all too willing to take him the rest of the way.
The irony of all of this, is that raising a child on the spectrum can be a lot like playing Marco Polo in the ocean. You search for what will work for your child, and in return you constantly hear people calling out different treatments, diets, studies and therapies, etc…. It can be overwhelming and at times disappointing. However, I am optimistic that by grabbing hold to pieces of information that work for you and discarding the rest we can each shrink our oceans to kiddie-sized pools… if we’re willing to make the effort.