Before this summer, we had never enrolled Dar in formal swimming lessons. He loved pools, he loved treading water, and lessons hardly seemed necessary. His brother R, on the other hand, has exhibited acute aquaphobia since he was a baby. The beginneriest of beginner classes at the local YMCA in downtown Berkeley are targeted to kids who are around 3 or 4. R turned 3 in May, so we enrolled R in a summer class (the “Pike” group, for those of you in the know) and enrolled Dar in the same class almost as an afterthought. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we needed Dar in the same class so that we didn’t have to make separate child-care arrangements. In any event, I hoped that a 3-year-old neurotypical kid and a 5-year-old autistic kid would both fit into the Y’s beginner class, and on the phone, a YMCA employee assured me that that would be the case.
However, the first day of class revealed that conversation to be something of a misunderstanding. R turned out to be the smallest kid in the class, Dar the biggest. That part was fine with the class’s coach; she more objected to Dar’s absolute inability to follow any kind of group instructions. Within ten minutes, it became obvious that Dar was the sort of kid that would need one-on-one instruction…unless the coach wouldn’t mind a child constantly wandering off into his own parts of the pool (hint: she minded).
That first day turned out to include a long talk with the person who supervises that YMCA’s pool programs, Jimmy. How to describe him? Not yet 30, raspy-voiced, intense, almost-always-talking, and the sort of person who says “for sure” a lot. If you saw just his beard, board shorts, and flip-flops you might think Jimmy is a kind of Bohemian swim instructor, but it turns out Jimmy is in perpetual motion, often mentioning the time when he worked in the Boston Celtics’ gym and the kind of workout ethic they had there. I’m 90% sure that Jimmy was my phone contact who told me that Dar’s special needs wouldn’t exclude him from class – how could I mistake him for anyone else? – but I didn’t press the point when Jimmy insisted that someone on the phone must have misunderstood. I think people don’t know how severely afflicted Dar is until they meet him.
Jimmy asked why we came to the Y – I mentioned some recommendations, including from the parents of another kid on the spectrum, Chochi. This led to Jimmy mistakenly calling Dar Chochi and sometimes assuming that what worked for Chochi would work for Dar. Jimmy said that Dar should have been signed up for his own class – but because Jimmy happened to have some flexibility in his schedule, he would take on Dar’s instruction while one of his coaches (as pre-arranged) taught R and the rest of R’s class. Jimmy would also need me (or wifey) to be in the water, which was unusual because the other parents were specifically told to stay out. One time, Jimmy was late, and as I stepped into the pool the lifeguard said to me “Ahem, it’s not family swim time,” and I couldn’t think of what to say until I came up with “Oh, Jimmy arranged this” and then she was like “Oh in that case just ignore me.” My presence in the pool was a mixed blessing; though Jimmy did walk me through how to train Dar to swim, aquaphobic R would scream for me and refuse to get his head wet without my help (unlike the rest of his class-mates, who pretty much dealt with it). So I would shuttle back and forth between Dar and R, and not really do much for either.
The pool was kind of perfectly sized for Dar, maybe half the length-width dimensions of a standard swimming pool, and just deep enough (in all parts) that Dar could stand on the bottom while his chin bobbed on the surface. Actually Dar spent most of his time gathering water into his mouth and then spitting half, swallowing the other half. This was at the same time the CDC confirmed this. (Ewwwwwwwwwww.) Well, Jimmy wasn’t content to simply let him stroll, spit, and swallow; instead he introduced him to all sorts of movements. Jimmy would just throw him up in the air, and eventually get him to help with that himself. Jimmy would get him to kick off the wall by starting him there in a sort-of fetal position. Jimmy would insist on moments of Dar simply gripping the wall while floating – “I tell them, ‘I’m not always going to be here, but the wall always will be.’”
I had thought I was a pretty good Dad when I stood in a swimming pool and spun my 5-year-old in a slow circle, laughingly simulating a bit of the swimming experience. It turns out there are better ways to get your kid swimming. Jimmy showed me how to chaperone his horizontal body from one end of the pool to the other – the crucial part is putting your hands on just the right parts of either side of his torso. With the slightest of movements of one hand down his back, you’ve suddenly got your kid almost at 45 degrees (his head out of the water, his feet in). To teach him to swim, you alternate his positions on the journey – 90, then 45, then 90, then 45, then somewhat more than 90 – on the third part, you actually reverse your grip just enough to plunge his head into the water as you guide him through a few seconds of underwater time. I found a natural instinct I didn’t quite know I had: I could not submerge Dar for more than a second without freaking out about him drowning and thus pulling him up. Jimmy laughed and told me that most parents act that way – the goal is five seconds. Any kid can take in water for that long, Jimmy said. By the end of eight sessions, I had gathered the courage to submerge Dar for about three seconds. Jimmy said he was proud of me. I was less proud of Dar, or at least I wasn’t sure if these classes had helped him – I didn’t notice any real change in his skill set from the first session.
On the second-to-last day of class, Jimmy asked about future classes for Dar, saying that we would do better to enroll him in a group of kids more like him. I laughed, because I figured we were done with Dar in swimming class for a while. After class, wifey corrected me: no more YMCA classes for R, but we’re doubling down on Dar. As it turns out, R’s pre-school does swim classes, and they’re cheaper, and perhaps Dar will get more out of a class where I can hang with him more consistently. So Dar is all set to start again in a couple of weeks. I guess wifey and I are both haunted by the deaths of people like Avonte Oquendo and Mikaela Lynch. I can only assume that their parents would tell us to keep pushing our kid to learn to swim. We’re trying, guys. We’re trying.