Splashing water and smiling faces filled the pool Sunday, September 25, at the Feaster Center on the campus of Fairmont State University as FSU swimmers teamed up with children from the Corridor Chapter of the Autism Society of West Virginia.
The FSU swimmers partnered up with the children in the Swimming Challenge not only teach them to swim, but just give them a chance to simply get in the pool and have a good time.
The Autism Challenge at FSU is part of a series of activities arranged by the Corridor Chapter of the Autism Society of West Virginia, a chapter that encompasses seven counties and is funded exclusively by self-organized fundraisers. All the money raised by the Corridor Chapter go right back to helping the children.
“We do something every month,” Brad Ford with the Corridor Chapter and father of 19-year-old participant, Connor, said. “We want something where the child and their mom and dad, grandparents and siblings can do something at no cost.”
Other activities the Corridor Chapter has put on include trips to the movie theater, a trip to Kennywood amusement park and a rolling skating trip amongst other things.
According to FSU swim coach Pat Snively, bringing together the children from the Corridor Chapter and his swimmers is a mutually beneficial opportunity.
“This is a great opportunity for our college swimmers to buddy up with kids who have autism, give them a swim lesson for free and just allow us to have a good leadership opportunity,” Snively said.
Snively explained that college coaches have three main objectives for their teams. First, they want to improve their teams to be competitive. Secondly, the want them to excel in the classroom and graduate.
Finally, they want them to become leaders in the community. That’s what the Autism Challenge Sunday was all about.
“I think the kids really look up to them,” Snively said. “This was just a perfected partnership for them. The kids have really attached themselves to their buddies. They trust them, they’re learning a lot, and they feel safe with them. That’s the biggest part of this.”
All the swimmers are lifeguards, and the Autism Challenge provided a fun and safe environment to learn.
Many times when autistic children go out and participate in different activities they’re paired with their parents or teachers, Ford explained. Sunday gave them a chance to work with collegiate athletes, something that is a unique experience for many.
“It’s very important for them to see college athletes participate in their sport and then be able to come and help them understand what they do,” explained Kristi Wolford, whose 9-year-old son, Tristan, was participating in the event. “I think it’s very important for the kids to have that relationship and build a team with that person.”
Sunday was the third time the two groups have partnered up this month, with the day being broken into two sessions of about 30 children apiece.
Fairmont State junior swimmer Sabrina Buhagiar was one of the buddies working with the children Sunday, and she is thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in such an event.
“I absolutely love it,” Buhagiar said. “This is our third week and I really think it’s been a privilege being about to get in the water and work with some of these kids.
“Swimming is something that we get to do on a daily basis, and we forget about that sometimes and we don’t realize how many kids are wanting to get into the water,” she added. “It’s been really great to teach them a skill such as swimming. I think everyone should be able to learn how to swim and get in the water.”
Buhagiar said that some of the children are nervous about getting in the water, but she and her fellow Falcons have developed different ways to make them comfortable like by using toys or kickboards.
Making the children comfortable in the water and not scared is certainly fun for many of them, but it also is beneficial for their safety. Wolford explained that many autistic children are attracted to the water, which can be dangerous if they don’t know how to swim.
“This is very important for them to learn how to swim and not to be afraid when being in the water,” Wolford said.
Events like the one Sunday provide a great opportunity for the children and the swimmers, but Ford explained that it means a lot to the parents as well.
“The moms and dads get to meet other moms and dads and share stories,” Ford said. “A lot of times they’re experiencing the same things and they can help each other. Your friends and family that don’t have children with autism are supportive, but they haven’t walked in your shoes.”
Ford said that so many children get to participate in activities like sports or band that not every child with autism is able to. When they do participate in activities, it’s almost always their parents that are right there with them. The Autism Challenge at FSU provided an opportunity to let their child step away from their parents and have a new experience.
“Parents of children with disabilities are very protective,” Ford said. “When they come here, parents get to take a break and watch their child perform.”
Getting a chance to just sit back and watch as their child swam with a big smile was great, Wolford said, and she hopes that others in the community may be interested in getting involved to experience it as well.
“It’s very rewarding as a parent,” Wolford said. “I hope that people in the community will learn about autism and would come and watch some of these kids and see the enjoyment in their faces.”
The final Autism Challenge at FSU will take place Sunday with an award ceremony for the children.
Reprinted with the permission of Sean McNamara, Times West Virginian. Email Sean McNamara at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @SMcNamaraTWV.