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KU Medical Center program works to reduce drowning and bring the joy of swimming to those on the autism spectrum

Children with autism are 160 times more likely to drown than other children, making learn-to-swim programs essential for their safety.

Large group of students and faculty pose together, standing in rows, wearing swimsuits and summer attire, outside a community pool
Supported by fundraising and a grant from the USA Swimming Foundation, KU Sensory Enhanced Aquatics aims to teach those on the autism spectrum how to swim.

Hot August days are the perfect time to hit the pool in Kansas. Earlier this month, faculty, students and friends of the University of Kansas School of Health Professions took to the pool at the Merriam Community Center for a good cause — helping others learn to swim.

Supported this year by a grant from the USA Swimming Foundation, KU Sensory Enhanced Aquatics held its second annual swim-a-thon in Merriam, Kansas, to raise awareness for drowning prevention and funds for swim lessons. Based at KU Medical Center in the School of Health Professions, KU Sensory Enhanced Aquatics is a swimming and water safety program for children with autism spectrum disorders.

Multiple studies have shown that drowning is a leading cause of death for both children and adults with autism. “Children with autism are 160 times more likely to drown than other children,” said Kayla Hamner, MOT, who manages the program and is a licensed occupational therapist. “Swimming and water safety instruction can decrease the risk of drowning, but most lessons don’t meet the unique learning needs of individuals on the autism spectrum.”

Lisa Mische Lawson, Ph.D., a certified recreational therapist faculty member, serves as director of KU Sensory Enhanced Aquatics. The program is staffed by students and alumni throughout the School of Health Professions, including those from occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech-language pathology. All receive specialty training in how to deliver swimming instruction to those with autism. Instructors in the program combine evidence-based teaching methods with sensory strategies matched to the unique needs of each child.

Over the past decade of the program, Sensory Enhanced Aquatics has taught more than 300 children with autism to swim. The program was recently expanded to serve adults.

Dean Abiodun Akinwuntan swims in a relay race
KU faculty members and administrators were among
those participating in relays to help raise money for
the program.

Research on the program has shown that 100% of parents felt their children were safer around water after eight Sensory Enhanced Aquatics lessons, and more than 90% of participating parents had increased their family water activities.

Abiodun Akinwuntan, Ph.D., MPH, MBA, dean of KU School of Health Professions, was among several administrators and faculty members who swam in a relay to support the program. “It was indeed a privilege to be asked for the second consecutive year to participate,” he said. “KU School of Health Professions is happy to support any program that gives back to the community, especially one that gives children with autism swimming lessons to prevent drowning and engage in more physical activities. It was fun to watch the children get in the pool with our faculty, students and volunteers and have fun while also learning to swim.”

Sensory Enhanced Aquatics Campaign

Throughout August, KU Sensory Enhanced Aquatics is raising funds in honor of its 10th anniversary. 

View the LaunchKU Campaign

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