IN THE SWIM: Senior project plans four-week clinic for autistic children

When Columbus North senior and swimmer Maria Cena Zavala was 10, she noticed something unusual at Donner Swim Club. There was another girl who didn’t want to listen to the coach. However, she paid attention to Maria and followed her directions. Maria later learned that the girl had autism.

Years later, the experience drove her to choose a special senior project — planning and presenting a four-week swim clinic, two days a week, for autistic children.

"I really like swimming," she said. "I really like kids. So I found them together.”

Ten children participated in the clinic. Maria was the main teacher and had a few helpers to assist her. Her project mentor was Heather Baker, the board president of the Arc of Bartholomew County and co-founder of the Columbus Autism Network.

"She pretty much organized it all herself, with just questions and guidance from me," Baker said.

Maria’s clinic was appreciated, as autistic children have "different needs," Baker said.

Apart from Maria’s temporary clinic, there are some other options in the community for autistic kids to learn to swim.

The Columbus Parks and Recreation Department makes accommodations for individuals with special needs in its programming, said Donner Acquatics Center Director James Lemke.

While there aren’t specific swimming lessons for those with autism, the parks department offers a "special swim" option for any special needs children. The program provides one-on-one instruction that works with each individual’s needs. According to the parks department’s online registration system, special swim is for ages 5 to 18. Some families choose private lessons for their autistic children, Lemke said.

Swimming lessons for autistic children are especially important for safety reasons, Baker said.

“Our kids are definitely attracted to water," she said. "They love water. … And if they don’t have those skills to help them, then it’s a danger because a lot of our kids elope as well. They run away. So if they run away and they go towards water, obviously there’s a risk of drowning.”

Maria held her final session of the swim clinic in late April. She said that she would like to continue it in the future if she has the time, and added that a friend of hers wants to do a similar senior project in the future. 

“I’m happy that I’m doing this," she said. "… I’m glad that I got the opportunity to do it, as COVID has been going on.”

Beyond swimming, there is a need for more programming for people with special needs or disabilities, Baker said. 

For instance, she said, her daughter is 21 years old physically but about 7 years old mentally. Participating with adults her own age isn’t a good fit, but neither is putting her with 7-year-olds.

“There’s a desperate need for programming for that population so that they can experience things that normal children do," she said.

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