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Adaptive classes help people with special needs get in the swim

November 9, 2018

Wednesday evenings tend to be good ones in Amy Binakonsky’s home in Greensburg, and she credits the adaptive swim program at the Aerobic Center at Lynch Field for that.

It’s because of the positive effects the swim time has on her son Luke, 10, who has a diagnosis of autism and sensory processing disorder.

“The water automatically calms him,” Binakonsky says. “My favorite nights are Wednesdays, because we get home, and he’s just so calm and relaxed.”

That’s not always the case on other nights of the week, she says.

“There’s so much sensory input at school that it’s overwhelming for him,” she says. “He has a lot of meltdowns when he gets home.”

There’s a lot going on during the swim sessions for people with both physical and intellectual disabilities, too -- like loud music and an instructor calling out prompts and encouragement -- but something about being in the water is great therapy for Luke.

Three sessions a year

The current session of the program is offered at 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Nov. 14, instructor Colby Musick-Breegle says. Fall, winter and spring sessions are held each year, with the next one scheduled to begin Jan. 2.

The class is open to anyone dealing with “anything that is considered a special need -- Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, anything,” Musick-Breegle says. Participants range in age from preteens, like Luke, to adults.

“The class is designed to be both social and therapeutic, to get people moving and get a little bit of exercise,” she says.

Adaptive swim classes have been offered at the Greensburg fitness center for about 10 years, aquatics director Rachel Carloni says. It started with one-on-one classes for people with special needs and grew out of the realization that many of those people didn’t have access to group activities.

The format, Carloni says, is based on programs developed by the Aquatic Exercise Association and from a former adaptive aquatics curriculum of the American Red Cross.

“The focus is on social interaction and being able to follow instructions,” she says. “It incorporates exercises for cardio, strength and coordination.”

High energy level

During the hour-long class, Musick-Breegle stays on the pool deck to demonstrate each move for participants who are in the water with a helper, usually either an aide or a family member. Another instructor circulates among the swimmers to help as needed.

Upbeat music plays to help keep the energy level up.

The first half-hour is devoted to cardio-type movements, while the second half-hour focuses on exercise with foam dumbbells or balls, or paddling with foam noodles or kickboards. Those who are able are encouraged to swim laps.

“A lot of the stuff we do is identical to what we do in our other swim classes,” Carloni says. “Some stick with the basic moves, others can do a little bit more. Obviously, any time we combine more movement, it’s a bigger challenge.”

The benefits class members accrue can be a little difficult to quantify, Carloni says, because many have limited verbal skills, but she does have some observations.

“What I did find through a survey and talking to the aides and relatives is that the level of cooperation is increased with many of the people,” she says. “It gives them a different venue for communication and to enjoy an activity together.

“A lot of these individuals come to us from group homes, and their lives can be very routine,” she says. “You get up, get breakfast, get your meds, go to your day program, come home, have dinner, go to bed. Sometimes there’s a lot of sedentary activity, but not a lot of physical activity. So this is a physical activity they can all enjoy together.”

Keep coming back

Class size can range from about eight to upwards of 30, Musick-Breegle says. “Some of our people have been coming for years.”

Josh Fawcett, 23, of Hempfield is one of those long-timers. Josh, who is diagnosed with autism and anxiety, has been a swim class participant for about five years, says his mother, Jackie Fawcett.

“Josh has always loved to be in the water. His first experience was in another program getting kids used to the water at age 5 or 6,” Jackie Fawcett says. “His favorite part is sitting at the bottom at the deep end of the pool.”

Josh, who attends a day program at the Clelian Center in Hempfield, “has limited verbal communication, but he can communicate his likes and wants,” his mother says. “When you ask him if he wants to swim, he’s always ready to go.

“He’s working on following directions and socializing on his level,” she says. “In general, everyone in class can participate as much or as little as they can. It’s a nice group, and there’s a handful that he likes to see on a weekly basis.

“I guess you can measure the success in that people have stayed on with it, and they keep coming back,” she says.

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