Thoughts on Water Play and Developmental Disabilities

As an occupational therapist I have offered water basins filled with squeeze and squirt toys to promote engagement, sensory exploration and motor skills (i.e. reaching, grasping, splashing, pushing, pulling etc.). Sometimes, I see huge interest in individuals with limited cognitive and hand skills and at other times, I see clients who hate water. For example, in the following blog post you see an adult client who hates water so much that she refuses to wash her hands. So, I made a goal to tolerate touching water during the following activity that involves moving balls from one container to another and getting wet in the process.

I have also observed many children and adults with developmental disabilities LOVING water sooooo much, that they can spend hours looking at waves, splashing and jumping in it. They appear to be enjoying not only the tactile, but visual and auditory stimulation as well as the olfactory stimulation (i.e. aromas) emanating from oceans, lakes or pools.

Now look at this little boy who is nonverbal and has autism spectrum disorder. I remember playing at the same age and fearing the water shooting out at me from tall fountains….. (I admit that I have sensory defensiveness issues…. ) but he shows no fear!!

In the above article link, the Autism Parenting Magazine authors makes the case that attraction or aversion to water may be

Included within the diagnosis under “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior” are two qualifiers that are plausible: “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in focus or intensity” and “hyper or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment.”

Can the movement of water and/or light reflection of it reinforce the “visual fascination with lights or movement,” as identified as a behavioral characteristic in the diagnosis? Perhaps the need for sensory stimulation could lead people with ASD to engage in the fluidity (pun intended) of moving water."

According to the DSM 5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), diagnostic criteria for ASD vary from deficits in social communication and interactions to restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior. Does the latter aforementioned description help explain possible predilections to water?

Regardless of whether or child or client loves or hates water- the statistics show that for children with autism – “the risk of drowning is 160 times that of the general pediatric population, according to a 2017 study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health

I didn’t try jumping into deep water until age 12 at camp. I learned how to properly swim by taking swimming 101 in college. Years later, while raising my son in a coastal community (… hubby bought a sailboat)- I took a Lifeguard training course, just to increase my confidence to save my loved ones if needed. (I never worked as a Lifeguard). However, I encourage a similar path for readers with young children-offer lots of opportunities to be comfortable in water and swim well enough to stay afloat. Perhaps, when you are my age (70 years young) you will transform water fun into water therapy with daily strengthening followed by YMCA sauna muscle relaxation time… For me , the joys of water are never ending…. and of course, I still love oceans and lakes…

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