San Diego Woman Recognized For Program Teaching Autistic Children How To Swim
New section: San Diego Woman Recognized For Program Teaching Autistic Children How To Swim: MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. A San Diego business owner is one of four people across the nation who have been nominated to win a Humanitarian Award sponsored by NASCAR. The nominations go to people who have made a profound impact on children's lives and that's just what Tammy Anderson Lee has attempted to do. Her business Aqua Pro Swim has programs to help children with autism learn how to swim because drowning is a special risk for autistic children. I would like to welcome Tammy Anderson Lee, she is CEO of Aqua Pro Swim School in San Diego and author of "Swimming with Autism." Tammy, welcome to the program. TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: Well, thank you so much for having me. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And joining us on the line is Nicole Hope Moore. She's President of the Autism Society of San Diego. Nicole, thanks for being with us. NICOLE HOPE-MOORE: Thank you. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Tammy did this nomination come as a surprise? TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: Yes, it did. Shirley from the Autism Society of San Diego had put in a nomination back in March, there was a long waiting period. They didn't even make the announcement until October 3rd. When we got the announcement we were just thrilled because there was hundreds and hundreds of applications of people that were vying for this opportunity and being chosen one of four finalists across the nation was pretty remarkable. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, apparently the Autism Society of San Diego is well aware of your work. When did you start teaching autistic children? TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: It was back in 1995 1996 is when I had my first student that had autism. At the time, I didn't even know what autism really was, but I had worked with kids with different types of special needs, so I was like okay I can figure this out. So, when I started to realize how great the water was for kids with autism and how they were able to achieve things that normally would be a little bit more difficult for them. I just realized I needed to do more for these kids. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Nicole, I'm not sure it is wellknown that autistic children are especially atrisk for drowning. How big a risk is it for them? NICOLE HOPE-MOORE: Well, drowning is the second leading cause of death for individuals with autism. That's right behind elopement and wandering. So, if ever any of us on the board or those directly affected by individuals with autism hear about a child being missing, our hearts immediately think about water. They are naturally drawn to the water. And um, we are just trying to do our best at Autism Society of San Diego to educate the public and the individuals with autism to learn how to swim, the possible risk of being around water with San Diego you know being basically surrounded by water as well as water is everywhere throughout the city. We are trying to do our best to educate the public and get our kiddos in swim classes. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Do you know why autistic children might have a fascination with water? What is much understood about that? NICOLE HOPE-MOORE: Well, we are not really sure, maybe Tammy can chime in on that one. My son I have a 16year old son on the spectrum and it is just when he is in swim class and when he is you know at surf camp, it is just one of those things it is just calming for them and soothing for them. It is just a great place for them to be in. You really see our kids blossom in it and since they love it so much, the best thing we can do as parents and as educators is to make them aware and make sure they are survive when they are out there playing in it. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Tammy, the danger of the flip side of that is with a fascination with water, and a child not knowing how to swim. TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: Right exactly. The fascination part or why they are drawn to the water can be because of the water moving or if it is flickering or it is there are all types of sparkly things there that make it interesting, but the kids there do realize that the way the water surrounds their body is calming and soothing, so they go towards the water, if they don't have competent skills within the water that's where you have the tragedy. So, across the nation drowning is the leading cause of death for children with autism and it is because of the elopement first and then they go towards a body water MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Wandering away and sort of gravitating towards a body of water if one is available? TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: Correct. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you say the first child with autism that you taught to swim was rejected from several other swim classes, why? TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: Right. Generally because the swim instructors didn't have the education or the know how or the tenacity at the time I mean this was back in 95 when I started to work with kids with autism and I think swim instructors they didn't know what autism was and because some of the kids could have behavioral issues and they could be a little bit hard to handle within a swim lesson were within a group lesson setting. What I have done after realizing what works with the kids, and what has not worked with the kids is kind of try to develop where we have classes where they start off oneonone and from there we put them into regular group classes, no more than three kids if they are able to. Generally, just because we want to see what the behaviors are to make sure they are okay. Generally, that would be the big reason that swim instructors are not educated on how to work with kids with autism specifically. So part of what I have done part of what this award money would do would actually help us to train more swimming instructors across the country. So Shirley, Kathy and myself have been doing this for the last five or six years. We just got back from Texas, we did a whole swimming training thing just for swimming instructors. It is just so important that swim instructors feel comfortable and confident working with kids with autism. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What are some of those behaviors that might put other swim instructors off if they don't know how to deal with kids with autism? TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: Kids with autism at times can tend to be somewhat violent. So, basically if you just MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Especially if they are in the water and they are a little concerned about their wellbeing? TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: It is just because if there is something new, novel or change usually spikes a behavior. So something that may be new to them but after they have attempted it several times and it is not so new so it makes a little bit easier. It is just that new atmosphere. Some of the kids may be a little bit older and may have never really been exposed to swimming facilities. You have to remember there are a lot of different noises and people for some of the kids it can spark a behavior. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is there something that parents might know if they are trying to teach their own autistic children to swim? TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: Well, generally I tell all parents because our swim school we have thousands of kids that swim a week. So, all of the parents should be from day one when you bring that baby home. You need to get that child accustomed to the water and what we have all the kids do at home during bath time is practice one, two, three ready go, pour water on their head and so that desensitizes them to the sensation of the water because what happens is over time it sends a subliminal message so the kids that the water is a bad thing. And then when those parents bring those four, five and sixyear olds to the swim lesson that have never been exposed to water on their face, and then those are the kids that you see that tend to be more upset at swim Generally, parents with the infants all the way up to young children should always be practicing that in that tub. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Nicole do parents of autistic generally, is it wellknown how important it is to teach their kids to swim? NICOLE HOPE-MOORE: I think as we hear more about this in the media, it is definitely becoming um, one of the tasks that is high on their list of things for kids. Initially, talking from experience it was not on my task list at all when my son was initially diagnosed at the age of four, but um after moving to San Diego and you know realizing that my son did love the water, it became a top priority and now that we know more and more and we hear more about individuals eloping and unfortunately ending up dead due to water death, it is just one more thing as parents that we need to do to make sure our kids are prepared. The great thing about Tammy's skim school is she not only teaches them how to swim, but also at the very end swim lessons they at the end of the program I should say, she allows them to get into the pool fully clothed with their shoes on because realistically God forbid if something should happen and the child was autistic and ends up in the water they are going to be fully clothed with their shoes on. So they are going to need to know how to swim out in that MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's a really good point. Nicole, do you have any estimate of kids with autism don't know how to swim? Would you say it is the majority? NICOLE HOPE-MOORE: Um, I don't have the statistics, but it is just one of those things where we are going to try and educate everyone. Not only the parents getting the child with autism educated on how to swim, but as well as the whole family. You just never know and things happen in a blink of an eye. It is just important that the entire family has water safety under their belt. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And just while we are on the subject Nicole, what type of tips does the Autism Society of San Diego have for parents that are trying to avoid kids wandering away or eloping as you say in the first place? NICOLE HOPE-MOORE: Well, wandering and elopement is just one of those characteristics unfortunately that is a part of autism. With autism being a spectrum disorder it is not characteristics that are evident in all children with autism, but um for those who do have children who elope, there are plenty of tips on the website. We offer plenty of support groups throughout the month in various parts of the county that focus on different things that parents can do in order to target some of the behaviors and characteristics of the child with autism including Um, it is just one more thing that we do to make sure our kids can home safe every MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So Tammy, tell me how, you told us about the challenges that swimming instructors might face with a child with autism trying to learn how to swim. How have you overcome those challenges? What kinds of methods do you use? TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: Well, kids with autism are visual learners first. So, we have incorporated things like using waterproof iPads and stuff like that to communicate with the student what their tasks are or what we are working on with them. A lot of visuals we for kids with autism the processing time is a little bit longer than you and I, so we try and communicate with as few as words as possible when instructing with the kids. Just little simple things like that. Just um, one thing I wanted to address too was that with the elopement, part of what we have been doing with drowning prevention is making sure that parents are aware that they have alarms on all of the windows and doors if any of the kids leave making sure that if their kids do leave that they check the bodies of water first and to educate their community and neighborhoods because here in San Diego, we have so many pools and backyard pools that if families with autism with introduce themselves to their neighbors and just let them know that they have a child with autism and if in fact that is um one of their kids elope that that would be one of the first places to check would be with the neighbors. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Tammy as you are making these children safe in the water by learning how to swim and learning how to be in the water safely, you have also said you realize that kids and you realize it is a wonderful place to be and a calming place to be, tell us about that? TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: The hydrostatic pressure of what the water does to the body when you are in, it kind of gives a nice little hug to the kids and for kids with autism they have sensory issues. So they do like to have the squeeze and the tightness. So the water does that naturally, so it helps to calm then and soothe them. Also if they are going to go underwater, a lot of the sensory echoes and things that they may be hearing are diminished underwater, so it is so much calmer for the kids to be there. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It is a silent calming place for them. TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: Right and they just once like I said sometimes when we get kids who come into the swim program they are not too keen on the idea at first, but then eventually they become comfortable in the water and then they begin to where they just absolutely love the water and then it is a problem getting them out of the water. (LAUGHTER) it is just one of those things where the water is a magical place for them. We actually hear some of the first words spoken from kids with autism in the pool. So we have had speech therapists that actually come and work with the kids in the pool just because for whatever reason I don't know exactly why, other than just being in the water, it actually facilitates communication a little bit more. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: Yeah, it is MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I was just going to ask you, I know a little bit now, what do you get out of teaching kids these kids how to swim? TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: I just love the fact that if we have a student that comes in and everybody is like this child is going to be difficult for you to work with, or this child is, you are probably not going to be able to get what you think, but we are able to work with the kids and they start doing things that nobody else imagined possible. I mean with our surf camp, we have a surf camp we have been running for 13 years, back then 13 years ago I could probably guess that the majority of those parents now would never have thought that their children would be learning how to swim, swimming and surfing. That's what I get out of it. I help these kids to do the things here in San Diego that everything else enjoys. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Nicole if Tammy and Aqua Pro Swim wins this $100,000 NASCAR Humanitarian Award, where is that money going? NICOLE HOPE-MOORE: It will be going to the experimental aquatic programs, the adaptive swim lessons at Aqua Pro Swim as well as our surf camp and just, you know continuing to improve the services that are already out there as well as possibly expanding surf camp, we offer it now I believe it is six weeks Tammy? TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: No, eight weeks. NICOLE HOPE-MOORE: Eight weeks I'm sorry. It would be nice to include more staff that way we can get more kids enrolled and as well as the swim lessons and just continuing TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: This past summer we had 134 kids with autism at surf MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Wow! NICOLE HOPE-MOORE: Yes. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you know when the award is going to be announced? TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: It is going to be announced on Friday, December 5th at the NASCAR banquet. So I will be going to Las Vegas hopefully I will be the winner. (LAUGHTER) and in order for us to win we need to get everybody here in San Diego to go to NASCAR.com\award and vote for me every day. (LAUGHTER) between now and December 4th so we can get as many votes as we can. The Autism Society itself is the direct beneficiary of the $100,000 award and then a portion of that will also be put aside to where both Shirley and Kathy and I can still travel across the country and save more lives by teaching swim instructors how to work with kids who have MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with Tammy Anderson Lee, she is with Aqua Pro Swim School in San Diego. Nicole Hope Moore is President of the Autism Society of San Diego. Thank you both very much. TAMMY ANDERSON LEE: Thank you. NICOLE HOPE-MOORE: Thank you. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Coming up San Diego Counties push to help families dealing with Alzheimer's disease that as KPBS Midday Edition continues.
Drowning is among the leading causes of death for autistic children. According to the National Autism Association wandering and fascination with water are contributing factors.
A San Diego business owner is helping teach them skills that may help save their lives. She's one of four people across the nation who've been nominated to win a humanitarian award sponsored by NASCAR.
The nominations go to people who've made a profound impact on children's lives and that's just what Tammy Anderson Lee has attempted to do. She's developed programs to help kids with autism learn how to swim at her school, Aqua Pros Swim School.
Anderson Lee explained on KPBS Evening Edition that autistic children face a unique threat of drowning.
"They don't have an inherent sense of danger," she said, "They are fascinated with the water."
Anderson-Lee also co-authored a book, "Swimming with Autism."