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What Makes the Connections Swim Program Essential & Effective?

Updated: 6 days ago

Several years ago, a beloved Connections student named Alec tragically passed away from drowning at his home. To honor his life and reduce the risk of other families having to endure this heartbreak, we committed to teaching all our students and adult clients vital swim skills and began the Connections swim program.

Our program is designed to meet the unique needs of children with autism, and it has proven highly effective. It’s even considered a model for other programs across Florida and beyond.

5 Key Elements of Our Adaptive Swim Program

Here are fives key elements that make our program so effective.

(1) Flexible learning for nonlinear learners.  While traditional swim lessons follow a rigid skill sequence, our approach acknowledges that children with autism often acquire these skills in a different order. Challenges with oral motor abilities, gross motor skills, coordination, sensory processing and other factors related to autism or other health concerns compound the need for flexibility.

Our instructors look for overall progress without strict emphasis on the order. “It’s important to understand that autism learning often isn’t linear. We find the strengths of each swimmer and build on skills from that point,” explains Connections Swim Instructor Chris Sikes. “If a child isn’t willing to blow bubbles today, that’s ok. We’ll move on to kicking or another essential skill and circle back to bubbles later.”

Connections’ lessons start with water safety. Sikes explains, “We teach kids how to enter and exit the water safely, and we focus on getting to the wall. Kids need to know that if you’re struggling in the water, you need to get to the wall.”

To achieve water competency, our instructors focus on two key aspects of swimming – breathing and buoyancy. Sikes explains, “Students need to learn how to be horizontal in the water, not vertical which causes you to sink. They need to be able to roll over to their backs and float in the water. They also need to learn to take a deep breath and fill their lungs with air – like a balloon.”

(2) Creating a sensory-friendly environment. Chlorine fumes, music, echoing voices at indoor pools, buzzing fluorescent lights – these are just a few of the sensory triggers that are common at pools. And while an uncomfortable sensory experience can be distracting to almost anyone, it can overwhelm children with autism who often have more sensitive sensory systems.

To minimize sensory triggers, our lessons are held at Lake Lytal, an outdoor pool where the pool staff collaborates with us to create a welcoming environment for our learners.

(3) Emphasizing Visual Instruction Over Verbal Recognizing that verbal communication can be challenging for children with autism, our instructors lean heavily on visual cues for effective learning. Sikes says, “We show kids what we want them to do – we don’t just say the words. I’ll show them how to blow bubbles, for example, and then invite them to do it with me.”

(4) Specially Trained Instructors Who Prioritize Trust Our swim instructors have completed specialized training to learn how to teach students with autism, and that starts with gaining their trust. “It’s essential to establish trust and build rapport with children with autism before expecting them to respond to your instruction,” explains Sikes. “We spend time outside the water building positive relationships with students – learning what they like and don’t like. That trust gives us a solid foundation for learning in the pool and it gives us ways to motivate the student.”

Sikes notes that a calm tone and slow pace are essential for success with our students. “If a teacher is anxious or trying to rush through the lesson, the students pick up on that and don’t feel safe. They’ll shut down fast if they don’t feel safe,” he adds.

For students who are fearful of swim class, our teachers create social stories – a form of intervention that uses a written or visual story to help children with autism become comfortable with a new or disliked activity. These stories can be read with the student at home, in therapy sessions or in other classes to prepare for swim lessons.

Token systems are set up for students who respond to earning a preferred item in exchange for completing a less preferred activity. And swim lessons are broken down into bite-size activities when needed. Sikes explains, “If we come across a swimmer who won’t touch the water, then we break it down into more manageable actions. We may start by asking the student to touch the white line next to the pool. We’ll go inch by inch making progress as we move toward water competency. We don’t force children; we make progress from where they are.”

(5) Wrap-Around Service to Accelerate Learning Because water safety is so critical, our entire team wraps around each child’s swim lessons. Our in-house occupational therapists (OT), speech therapists and PE teachers all work on related skills. For example, our OT will develop personalized social stories for children who are new to swim or will create exercises to work on related motor skills. Our speech therapists will help children learn words they need to know in swim lessons or learn how to express how they’re feeling in or near the pool.


Classroom teachers often use visual schedules to show students when students will attend swim class, which helps students with autism relax and feel more in control. And our PE teachers work on core strength and other fitness elements that help children succeed at swimming. “This complete wrap-around service is powerful for our students,” adds Sikes.

These elements come together in weekly, 1:1 swim lessons that have proven highly effective. As students progress, they may move to small groups. “Some kids are motivated by watching others who are more advanced in an area,” says Sikes. “For instance, two of our older students were swimming complete laps one day. A third student decided he wanted to try. When he finished swimming up and down the lane with the other boys, he had the biggest smile on his face for the rest of the day. You could tell that he felt like a superstar,” recalls Sikes.

Meet Our Swim Staff

Chris Sikes

A recent addition to our team, Sikes brings an extensive background of aquatics instruction and competitive swimming to this role. He’s an award-winning coach who has worked with swimmers of diverse backgrounds, including a Pan American Games gold medalist.

Carlos Jacinto

Carlos brings almost 40 years of experience lifeguarding and instructing swimmers. He's extremely passionate and loves the students. Safety is his number one priority.

Why Do We Need Swim Lessons at Our School?

 (1) Drowning is the No. 1 cause of death for children with autism.

 (2) Children with autism face a 160 times higher risk of drowning than their neurotypical peers.

 (3) Traditional swim lessons don’t work for many children with autism.

 (4) The majority of our students live below the poverty line and come from minority families; they often lack access to adaptive lessons that work for their children.

 (5) We’ve experienced the tragedy of losing students to drowning and want to save lives with these critical lessons.

Why Are Children with Autism Drawn to Water?

Children with autism often “elope” or wander from the safety of supervision; according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about half of children and youth with autism wander. Water can be very attractive to these children, from curiosity or a sensory aspect. The feeling of water on the skin and the lessening of weight in water can both appeal to individuals who seek sensory inputs.

How Do We Fund this Program?

Because our swim program is out of scope for the Department of Education, we turn to grants and generous donors to fund this essential service. The Palm Beach County Youth Services has generously granted us funds to cover part of the program for multiple years. We also raise funds through our Draw the Line on Drowning annual fundraiser as well as through gifts from individual donors who want to help save lives through adaptive swim lessons.

If you'd like to help make these lessons available to our students with autism and help save lives, reach out to us.


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