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Autism and water
Mr. Diggy is addicted to water. As a toddler, he taught himself to swim. As a preschooler, he was safer in the water than out (where his pica diagnosis meant he was constantly attempting to ingest unsafe non-food objects). As an elementary-aged child, he spent his summers in the pool, his winters in the bath, punctuated by running through the sprinklers, “helping” to wash the car, and plenty of puddle-jumping (or tapping). And then came the pandemic. And our entire world ground to a halt.
After a week of being at home in March, feeling trapped by pouring rain, lockdown orders, and the angst that our entire society was unraveling before our eyes, I called our pool company and asked them to switch on the solar heating unit. I was more hopeful than confident – willing the sun to show itself to warm the water.
Mr. Diggy is a high-needs kid, except when he is in water. When he is water, he is at home – content to just be, his high-level sensory needs fully met, for at least the present moment.
He has spent most of the Covid shutdown in water. In the spring, with maybe a total of 1-2 hours daily of school and/or therapy, all online, he nevertheless made great improvements. Even with limited direct instruction, he met several IEP goals and is much more proficient with AAC device – all because we believe his sensory system is more regulated. This has caused us to entirely rethink our long-term planning for him, and we aim to move him to Hawaii full-time to have year-round access to warm water.
So it is that we have decided to plan a water-based life for our guy.
Water at Home
We are grateful that we have a pool, but that is only an option from about April to October in Northern California. In the “off season,” we rely on “swimming” in our hot tub, splashing in the bath, or playing with the garden hose. The shower works, as does a sink faucet (if a bit messy!). We haven’t tried it yet, but we’re considering one of those pedicure-style foot tubs to add to the arsenal.
Water on the Go
In pre-COVID times, a favorite destination was a nearby park that had water “fountains” that would spurt at random intervals from the playground surface. Even better (though definitely requiring more vigilance on our part) were parks and plazas with continuously running fountains. The path around our local lake was lovely for a short while, but because the water is not swimmable – or potable – we have avoided that recently.
Which brings us to the beach. We are grateful that Mr. Diggy typically exhibits a healthy amount of caution around huge crashing waves, in either the tropical waters of Kona or the brisk beaches between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. However, he has no qualms about running into the Pacific when calm, even on the typically chilly California side. In California, we have shimmied him into a wetsuit to allow for longer bouts in the water. In Hawaii, of course, this is a non-issue- he can and will sit at the shoreline – or in tidepools – with water gently washing over him for hours.
Water-based community activities for individuals with special needs are a unique gift for our family. Thankfully there are many organizations who understand and support the combination of autism and water. We are grateful to the numerous non-profit organizations who create these opportunities and we are anxiously awaiting their safe return to our community.
The surf organizations are our favorite, like Ride A Wave in Santa Cruz and Surf 4 Special Needs on the Big Island. A more recent addition to our schedule was a lake-based kayak program called Paddle 4 Good. And while we haven’t yet had the opportunity to work with either organization directly, both Anelakai Adventures and Deep and Beyond have programs to support individuals with differing abilities access water activities.
In creating a life that includes both autism and water, we are seeking to support, not fight against, Mr. Diggy’s natural inclinations. It is our goal to adapt his surroundings and assist him in building a daily life that embraces both the strong forces of autism and water, and, in doing so, create a pathway for him to live his best life. That is why we are working to create a community at Kokua Kona, in Kailua Kona, Hawaii.