KU's Sensory Supported Swimming program serves its 100th student

August 14, 2015

By Greg Peters

Lisa Mische Lawson
Lisa Mische Lawson works with one of the Sensory Supported Swimming program students

A program began four years ago by faculty in the University of Kansas Department of Occupational Therapy Education to teach children with autism spectrum disorders how to swim and learn about water safety has reached a noteworthy milestone - 100 students taught.

Lisa Mische Lawson, Ph.D., an associate professor of occupational therapy education and founder of the Sensory Supported Swimming program, was checking enrollment records for the summer sessions at the Fairway (Kansas) Swimming Pool when she discovered that a kindergarten-aged boy named Tristen from Olathe was the program's 100th student.

"It was really exciting to learn that we've been able to serve 100 swimmers and their families," Mische Lawson said.

From the beginning

The swimming program, which provides one-on-one instruction for children ages 4 to 17 from all over the Kansas City metropolitan area, started in 2012 at Kirmayer Recreation Center on the KU Medical center campus with help from a grant from Autism Speaks, a sponsor of autism research. From these humble beginnings, the swim program has grown to having more than 200 potential students on the waiting list.

The swim program currently conducts its summer sessions at the Fairway pool with sessions the rest of the year at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School. When the program first added classes in Fairway three years ago, there were two sessions each summer, but that number has since doubled.

"Since then we've just grown and grown," Mische Lawson said. "When we started three years ago with just five students at a time, we never imagined we'd be able to reach this many families."

As part of the program, therapists do a sensory evaluation of each new student to identify specific experiences such as sounds, touches and temperatures that might affect how a child learns. Modifications such as tinted goggles or wetsuits are then made to help students engage in the water and feel more comfortable. The experience gives occupational therapy students a chance to take what they've learned in the classroom into the real world.

"This program has taught me how to get to know the children individually and understand their sensory preferences, so that we can learn to use these preferences in the water to better their swimming abilities," said program co-student director Laurie Schmidt, a third-year student in the master of occupational therapy program.

Instructors learn from students

The swimmers and their families are not the only ones who benefit.  Embedded within the first-year curriculum for occupational therapy students is a service learning component where students spend an academic year working with a community organization to gain practical experience working with the families.

"We've had some really talented students come work with the children and their families," Mische Lawson said. "And we've had some students who are brand new to aquatics. They come and learn throughout the year how to serve families and how to make kids water safe."

"This program has taught me how to be a more effective leader in and out of the water by not only teaching kids to learn how to swim but also helping other instructors teach their children how to swim," said Schmidt. "One of the most precious memories I have from this program is seeing how far the kids can progress."

The future

Over the years, 17 occupational therapy students, three pre-occupational therapy students and eight students from other programs in the KU School of Health Professions have participated as swim instructors.

During the training, KU leaders teach others how to lead similar projects in their own communities. Participants this summer came from as far away as Atchison, Kansas, and Columbia, Missouri. Mische Lawson is excited about the opportunity for the program to serve more families.

"This is how we reach more families," she said. "We can only do so much here ourselves, but with the new training program, we can really reach out and serve more people."

For the program's 100th student, Tristen, and his mother, Sensory Supported Swimming has meant the difference between hating to go outside when was raining and loving the water so much that he is learning to float on his back by himself.

"I'm just grateful that there is a program that understands my son's sensory issues," she said. "His ears are very sensitive, so I have never been to get him to wear earplugs. Now he wants to wear his earplugs all day. It sounds like a small step, but it's huge."

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