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Autism and Diving

Discussion in 'Divers with Disabilities' started by Bobbin-along, Aug 15, 2006.

  1. Bobbin-along

    Bobbin-along Barracuda

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Puget Sound
    This week has been an adventure for the basic OW class. I was supposed to be there for all the students but the instructor has paired me with an 'tween (12yo) who was a bit of a handful the first 2 days. Completely unfocused, prone to bolting, and slow to pick up the skills. On the 3rd day before class the mom let me know that her daughter was a mainstreamed high-functioning autistic child.

    I've done some research and now am better prepared for dealing with her challenges. We are extending her training another week to help her adapt and gain the skills.

    What's worked so far.

    1. No abstract ideas, no matter how seemingly simple.
    2. Every skill is broken down into it's most basic parts and we slowly build up to the entire skill. For example:
    Regulator recovery. First step is to get her to remove the reg from the mouth and put it back in immediately. Then we move the hand out even further away, til finally she can put it down by her hip. The next step is to let go. Then we practice the sweep, and finally the entire skill. She has done well with this approach.
    3. We keep stimulus to a minimum, and take each new idea, skill, or change in environment (deep end of pool for example) one small step at a time. While the rest of the kids are certifiying their OW dives, she is going to snorkel in her wetsuit for the weekend. it will get her used to a wetsuit and cold salty water. Then next week after more pool time we will get her in scuba gear for her check out dives.
    4. She has to repeat back and demonstrate knowlege of a skill before doing it.
    5. She has cue cards to review at home.
    6. We use differential reinforcement

    Even after one day of a different learning approach the change is astounding. She did so much better today, but we are concerned about her retention. If she doesn't dive every day she forgets so much (as evidenced after a weekend off) that it's almost like starting over. It is something even her mom comments on. With that, we maintain 2 serious concerns as she prepares for her practicals.

    1. Even if she can make it through practicals (right now she isn't up to par) after another week of class, should we issue a cert to her knowing that unless she dives every day she will not remember half of it in a month or bless it all 4 months from now.
    2. The spacing out/focus problem inherent with this developmental challenge means she ultimately isn't mentally prepared to be responsible for herself. We are not comfortable issuing a cert for basic OW, but the instruction team is OK with a provisional certificate where she must dive with a DM or Instructor for future dives.

    The instructional staff is just not comfortable with that idea at this time, and even if she does learn the skills, she does not have the processing and prioritizing skills to be safe in the future.

    What her presence in the class has done is gotten the entire team to discuss these challenges and how to solve them. That has been tremendous.
  2. Diver0001

    Diver0001 Instructor, Scuba

    You could consider issuing her the "scuba diver" cert instead of OW. By issing that cert instead of an OW cert you'll be relatively sure that she'll be forced to dive in shallow water under supervision instead of being sent off on a boat with an instabuddy. The shop I work for sometimes uses this for people who are able to squeeze through confined part of OW but who simply are not capable of becoming divers.

    Right again. There is no way you'll ever get "stop/breathe/think/do" into this student. This is an enormous risk for her as a diver and you have to do whatever is necessary to make sure she is diving with direct supervision. Again, the "scuba diver" cert may offer a way out.

    As long as you still have this feeling then offering her an OW cert would be a breach of your duty of care, if you ask me. Doing so would be putting her at serious risk and exposing yourself to a serious threat of liability. All the more so considering her age. Before proceeding the instructor needs to have a serious talk with the parent about this.

    If I were you, if you decide to train her anyway, then you need to throw out any ideas you have about schedules, time and/or results and approach it in terms of an ongoing activity that takes place only in the pool for the time being. It may take her a long time to learn how to dive to the point that the instructor can sign her off. Perhaps the parent would be open to paying monthly to have her in "diving", in the same way that you pay monthly for things like judo training..... either way, the parent's expectations need to be brought above water (as it were) asap and managed realistically.

  3. Bobbin-along

    Bobbin-along Barracuda

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Puget Sound
    We as a team decided to offer her the provisional certification. NAUI has a jr. diver card that is good until the kids are 15, and that gives her a few years of supervised diving and an opportunity for us to watch and see how she develops. We have begun the discussion with the grandmother who appears to be the major care provider for the child. When we spoke it was clear that she wants her grandchild to be exposed to many things, explore her world, mix with kids, and learn. Grandma does not understand the breadth of scope and responsiblity, which is not that surprising. Dad is a sky diver and while he embraces risk, he too has not been able to see the difference between 50' below the water and 500' above the ground. So part of our job has been educating the family too.

    As it stands she will continue her skills for another week, and see how far we get. From there we have to talk with the parents about what to do about further training if necessary as she requires 1-on-1 training which means a dedicated staff member who either volunteers their time or we have to figure out something like private lessons.

    The team understands that at least for the next few years this 12yo girl does not have the mental attitude to dive independently from a well trained diver who will keep an eye on her. We want her to enjoy herself, we want people to be successful but the shop will NOT issue a cert to anyone who we feel is not up to the task.

    It's been a fun journey, as teaching scuba skills is a very different world compared to teaching non-life essential skills to those with emotional and developmental challenges. The sr. instructor was a bit more indifferent to the challenges, while the rest of the team has been very active in trying to find ways to enable her to be successful on her own merits and skills.
  4. do it easy

    do it easy Assistant Instructor

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Chicagoland, USA
    Nice work! I dive with divers with various disabilities and autism is one that I have little experience with. Your protocol is very helpful. Kudos- it sounds like you and the team have gone the extra mile.

    I like the junior cert idea. The other thing to keep in mind is that because of her disability, she might always need supervision while in the water. You aren't short changing her by not certifying her for OW. Instead, you are enabling her to enjoy something that she wouldn't have the chance to experience otherwise, regardless of what kind of supervision she needs now or in the future. Yes, it would be more convenient for her if she were to dive independantly, but the most rewarding challenges aren't always the most convenient.
    lsorenson likes this.
  5. WilDive4Food

    WilDive4Food Angel Fish


    Being a parent of a child diagnosed with Autism, that I hope will dive someday, I tip my hat to you and your team!
    Thank you for your patience, understanding, and determination to help those with special needs. There is no doubt that her cert. will be a longer process as is most every learning experience for an autistic person. The major reason is being able to keep her focus on the task at hand. As you said, prone to wondering off, some activities will keep my son locked in focus for hours, while others only minutes. This will be a long road, but I guarantee that the gratitude you receive in the end will be worth it.
    The fact that you did research shows that you care and are willing to help. There are those that may have just chalked her off and said, Sorry, no can do.
    Thank you.

    Capt. Pete likes this.
  6. Bobbin-along

    Bobbin-along Barracuda

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Puget Sound
    Thanks everyone. I needed an outlet to try and articulate what has been going on just to see if we are doing the "right" thing. Most of our days are spent coaching disabled (physical and developmental) kids and adults in a variety of sports including sailing, off-road wheelchairing, and snowboarding. Disabilities are just not a big deal in the grand scheme of life, they are just something to take into account and adapt.

    I was kinda frustrated initially, and at a loss as to what to do. As a parent, I'm sure that it is difficult to share your child's challenges with someone you don't know. But the first 2 days could have gone so much better if someone had told us. Since the mom and grandmother didn't have any concept about training required to be a safe and responsible diver, they didn't see a need to tell us that the child may have focus, interaction, and processing challenges while in the class.

    Had we known I would have hit the books earlier, and we could have avoided the first 2 days of head banging against the wall frustration from the girl and the staff.

    To instructors: children with autism do not have it tatooed to their forehead or pinned to their swimsuit. Sure we noticed she had some difficulty socializing with the other kids and that she gravitated to hanging out with adults. But living where we do, that is not unusual with rural home-schooled kids who don't have social outlets to interact with other kids. She also seemed to be disorganized and in her own time-zone. But in all honesty, we see that with teenagers all the time as well, especially with those who's parents do everything for them (you know the type). She barely passed the swim, tread, and snorkle tests on day 1, and heck there's always one in the class that isn't a brilliant swimmer. The lack of attention to her tasks at hand and surroundings was something we chalked up to fear of the idea of scuba, again that's normal. She seemed intelligent, she seemed sorta socially awkward, she was a space cadet. Shoot, that's most any 12yo girl, right?

    To parents: Please tell the staff ahead of time so that they can prepare to make the experience a rewarding one. Most people will be more than happy to help, IF they are armed ahead of time with the knowledge and skills necessary. Don't be ashamed, or prideful. Be forthright, and down to earth about it, and the people who are coaching or teaching your child will respond accordingly.
  7. KC7JQH

    KC7JQH Garibaldi

    # of Dives: 0 - 24
    Location: US Pacific Coast
    This thread is encouraging. I have a son who is autistic and interested in diving. I'll keep the thoughts in mind as I look into instruction programs for him.
  8. herbdb

    herbdb Manta Ray Rest in Peace

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Allentown, PA
    The abilities of a person with autism is hard to nail down because it varies so much among individuals. I have a 24 year old son on the autistic spectrum who is now a Rescue Diver. Before starting training, we discussed this with his neurologist and psychiarist.

    He requires help with learning new materials, not so much for passing a test, he has a great memory, but to make sure he really understands the material. I went through the OW class with him and we had our own instructor. He took AOW and Rescue as part of a regular class.

    Forgot to mention that we made sure the Dive Shop and instructors were aware of his issues. What suprised me the most, was that anxiety was not a problem with diving as it is in many areas of his life.
  9. Bobby Demosthenis

    Bobby Demosthenis Divemaster Candidate

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Bognor Regis, England
    Hi guys,

    Just wanted to add my few pence to this discussion. For the past 4 years, I have worked in a specialist organisation, as a specialist assistant tutor, focused soley on working with adults with Autism (and children) be that, low functioning (with a moderate to severe learning disability) high functioning (mild to moderate LD) to Asperger Syndrome (which is soon to be taken out of the new DSM).

    I spend Monday to Friday, teaching children and adults how to communicate, how to cook, how to speak a foreign language and on occasion, I have taken the more higher ability individuals diving (in a pool with an OWSI and DM/AI present). Some of them have even completed a DSD and one is now a Scuba Diver. Retention is something we do struggle with, but what I always come back to is - they remember there favourite twiddle, their favourite food (by taste and smell).
    I use this to keep them motivated, with whatever we are learning. What I always remind myself is some of these individuals just aren't interested/motivated to learn anything about cooking or cleaning. But its about motivation. Big time.

    My dive club has a regular club night and this individual is a regular at the club, if not religiously going every week. Make the refreshers a ritual. Make it fun - make it a regular occurance. But definitely don't give up on them. They can learn. Even if it is only a Try Dive with a certificate. These guys suffer from a generally lack of achievement, be it from school or college.

    Some of these individuals can be hypo or hyper sensitive to sensory stimulation. So even getting in the water can be a huge distraction to them, or I guess in some cases, they may not fully understand the sensation.

    Class work. Set clear rules/boundaries. And try and do small chunks if possible. Do a knowledge review, learn something fun, or watch the OW dvd.

    Anyway, sorry for rambling. Diving and Autism are my two passions in life. I hopefully want to combine the two a little, by introducing some of these guys to the underwater world!

    warmwaterturner and Nami like this.
  10. John C. Ratliff

    John C. Ratliff Instructor, Scuba

    # of Dives: I'm a Fish!
    Location: Beaverton, Oregon
    I have one thought, but it is from the perspective of a diver with many years experience, a NAUI Instructor with not much experience instructing, and an ex-military diver. For those students with autism who are taken into the water one-on-one with an instructor/divemaster, I would advise the use of a buddy line for positive physical contact. The U.S. Navy used buddy lines for us as students, and it has left a mark on me. I used it with my buddy diving in the 1970s off the Oregon coast in December. Waves went from 3-4 feet height when we entered the water to 15-20 feet after we were in. We were rolled by a huge breaker coming in, and a 1/4 inch nylon buddy line 4 feet long with brass snap links kept us in contact with each other the whole time. For these students who may have memory problems or become excited with external stimulation, I would highly recommend the buddy line for positive contact to prevent an inadvertent fast ascent.

    NAUI #2710 (retired)

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