Sharks and Minnows

excerpted from “A Cool Pool Story,” The Autism Trail Guide: Postcards from the Road Less Traveled, by Ellen Notbohm (2007, Future Horizons)

During the years my kids (one with autism and one with ADHD) were in swim activities, they loved a water-tag game called Sharks and Minnows. One swimmer is the Shark and the rest of the swimmers are the Minnows, who must swim from one end of the pool to the other without being tagged by the Shark(s). Each swimmer who is tagged becomes a Shark. Soon the Sharks begin to outnumber the Minnows and the odds of success for the Minnows shrink to nothing.

Some children take to the water like fish, metaphor intended, but for others it will be a figurative game of Sharks and Minnows. Many children with autism are very much Minnows, who must make it past the Shark-infested waters of innumerable sensory challenges, with plenty of social communication lampreys and piranhas thrown in. Success requires by recognizing and addressing some of these not-so-obvious impediments.

My son with autism didn’t learn to swim until he was eight years old, but when he was ready, and with the right accommodations, he went from the proverbial zero to sixty in five seconds, covering five levels of the Park Bureau’s swim program in five weeks and going on to swim competitively for two summers.  With the whole-hearted help of the swim program’s administrators and instructors, we were able to identify and vanquish many obstacles, such as:


A cavernous locker room booby-trapped with clammy puddles, funky odors and screaming hair dryers will be enough to stop a child with sensory issues such as autism. On top of that are safety issues, particularly if you are a mom with a boy or a dad with a girl.

Stranger-danger is real and scary enough for any child, but for your special needs child, the thought is just heart-stopping. The outside entrance to most pool locker rooms is not visible from the pool deck. You must do whatever is necessary to keep your child safe in loose public venues like this. Some pools now offer family changing rooms, a boon for parents with opposite gender children. If your pool doesn’t, and you truly can’t take your opposite sex child through the locker room, (I did, without apology) ask if you can come in to the pool through a side exit, employee entrance or other alternative where you can accompany him.

Once you make it out of the locker room; you now confront the actual pool, where there are no end of sensory insults. If you have a choice between indoor or outdoor pool, here are some considerations:


*          Heavy chlorine odor can cause headaches and nausea in some children

*          Steamy atmosphere can cause some children to overheat

*          Echo-chamber effect of shouted instructions and continual splash can make it impossible for the child to understand his teacher.

*          Competing noise from simultaneous activities can be overwhelming. One busy summer, we were contending with the noise of an adjacent class, the swim team practice, the steady fwap! from the springboard diving class, and the boombox music from the synchronized swim group at the far end of the pool.


*          Water may be too cold or too murky/slimy (from dozens of kids slathered in sunscreen, peeing in the pool); floating dead bugs may scare some children.

*          Weather issues can create discomfort – breeze on wet skin, air temperature too cold, rain during the lesson.

*          Visual and aural distractions abound – people constantly moving around the pool deck, deck chairs being dragged, glare from the sun, puddles of melted snow cones.

And now, on to…


The size and pace of typical group lessons may be too large for the instructor to give your child the attention he needs and to provide adequate personal space around him during the lesson. Consider the pros and cons of private or semi-private lessons. A one-on-one lesson may be appropriate, or it may be too intense, causing the child to feel the pressure of expectation. A semi-private group of 2 or 3 children, preferably friends your child already knows, can provide a sense of fun, especially if the teacher sets aside a few minutes at the end of the lesson for play activities like diving for rings or bobbing around on an inner tube. All the children in the group should be at about the same skill level.

Ask the pool manager which times of day are the most and least popular, and choose your time accordingly. Some instructors assume a drill-sergeant barking style in order to be heard over the din. Ask the instructor to speak directly to your child from a distance of no more than two feet, to give clear instructions in plain language, no slang.


Acknowledge and respect that there is a fear factor. For any child, there is the fear of going below the surface of the water and not being able to come back up. For any child, there must be a level of comfort and safety. Ask the pool manager what kind of assistive equipment is available. Flotation aids like the foam ‘taco’ (a neoprene shell with two arm holes ) or float mat help kids get used to the feeling of immersion. Both support the child’s body weight so s/he is able to breathe but still acclimate to the feeling of the weight of the water on the body.


Most importantly, remember that it’s not as much about flutter kicking and an overhand stroke as it is as about allowing the child to explore their parameters without forcing expectations upon them. As one instructor told us: “Children are very sensitive to their parents’ reactions, so consider how they will internalize those reactions. When a child is learning to swim, what is most important is the patience and the encouragement of both teacher and parent, allowing the child the freedom and the permission to progress at whatever individual pace makes them feel safe.”

For us, I knew I had found the right instructor when, from my perch in the bleachers, we couldn’t hear a word she was saying to my child. I didn’t have to. Her written evaluation at the end of the first two-week session said it all:

Wow! An eager swimmer and an absolute pleasure to teach.
Ear to the water, bubbles down, great job!


© 2006, 2010 Ellen Notbohm. Contact author for permission before reproducing in any manner.