Amanda Hassen, OTD, OTR/L, always dreamed of a career in which she could combine her passion for occupational therapy with her love of swimming. She found that opportunity while completing her OTD at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

OT_News-01As part of Belmont’s OTD program, students must complete an experiential component in their final semester where they integrate the four curricular themes of clinical excellence, scholarship, service and leadership to effect a positive social change.

Knowing that drowning is the leading cause of death for children with autism spectrum disorder, Hassen approached Beth Scruggs, executive director of Dolphin Aquatics, about offering swim classes to children with ASD. For the past 12 years, Dolphin Aquatics, a nonprofit organization in Nashville, has been teaching swimming to children and adults with special needs at no cost to the participants.

“Although children with autism have always been included in our classes, we realized years ago they needed a different approach and environment when learning to swim,” Scruggs said. “When Amanda came to me and said she wanted to create a swim program specifically for children with autism, we were beyond thrilled.”

Teaching safety and swimming skills

A study published in the Nov. 1, 2012, issue of Pediatrics found half of all children with ASD are prone to wandering away from caregivers and toward objects of fascination, which for many children is water. Between 2009 and 2011, drowning accounted for 91% of all wandering-deaths among autistic children under age 14 in the U.S., according to the National Autism Association.

Amanda Hassen, OTR/L, used her background as a swim coach and an OT to develop a program for children with autism spectrum disorder. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Hassen)

Amanda Hassen, OTR/L, used her background as a swim coach and an OT to develop a program for children with autism spectrum disorder. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Hassen)

Using her background as a swim coach and an OT, Hassen designed ’Phins, a sensory-based swim program tailored for children with ASD. She opened the program to children on the autism spectrum between ages 3 and 10, who were nonswimmers. Some had taken swim lessons before but had difficulty learning to swim in traditional programs. The first two sessions of lessons were offered at both the Centennial Sportsplex in Nashville and at the Hampton Inn and Suites in downtown Nashville, which offered its hotel swimming pool to the ’Phins at no cost during nonpeak hours.

“For the children who were more fearful of the water, we used our first lesson to desensitize them to the water by blowing bubbles and using cups to pour water on our bodies,” Hassen said. “We not only want to teach them how to swim but also basic water safety skills.”

Accompanied by three swim instructors and numerous community volunteers, Hassen led students through a series of swimming exercises combined with sensory training. Because visual aids help children with ASD process what they are being asked to do and also help those who are nonverbal, Hassen used Velcro to stick photos onto picture schedules or first-then boards — which illustrate two tasks in order — to help children visualize the sequence of the swim lesson.

“We also did a lot of rhyming and singing as part of the lessons and used techniques like joint compression to help kids who were out of touch with their physical sense of self and needed to regain body awareness,” Hassen said. “The skills the children learn also help them outside of the water in areas such as attention, acquisition of motor skills and sensory processing.”

Word quickly spread on the ’Phins program and soon there was a waiting list for the one-of-a-kind lessons being offered through Dolphin Aquatics.

In May, Hassen graduated from Belmont University with her OTD and moved to Greenville, S.C., where she was offered a job in a private OT practice. Based on the success of the ’Phins program, she hopes to design a similar program in Greenville. Although Hassen is no longer in Nashville, Scruggs said she left the ’Phins program with a great base.

“Amanda left us with a training manual for our volunteer instructors and all the equipment and supplies needed,” Scruggs said. “Parents have told us they are so grateful to have this program available for their children.”