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Jun 27, 2023

Swim readiness program gives kids and parents confidence


At Friday school pick-ups throughout Term 2, mum Lauren has been delighted to be greeted with an enthusiastic “Let’s go swimming!” from her son Luke.

The seven-year-old, who has autism, intellectual disability and is partially non-verbal, is one of 20 children with disability, participating in Northcott’s iSplash Learn to Swim program, run by our occupational therapists in Wollongong.

What is different about iSplash?

Funded by the Australian Government’s Information Linkages and Capacity Building (ILC) program, iSplash is the brainchild of Kate Dryden, Northcott Occupational Therapist. Kate has been working with colleagues Lauren Williams, Occupational Therapist and Cameron Ryan, Allied Health Assistant to plan and deliver the program.

“This type of swimming program, designed specifically for children with disability and neurodiversity, is needed in this area – there’s no other program like it as far as our team is aware,” says Kate, who is also an accredited Learn to Swim Instructor.

“As OTs, we bring our therapy knowledge about sensory and emotional needs, and we’ve also been able to work on social skills with the children. With three therapists and small class sizes, we have been able to break into groups and work individually with a child if required,” she explains.

There are other differences as well, says Lauren. “Before the program started, we asked parents to complete an intake form so we could learn specific goals and the individual needs of each child. This has allowed us to plan lessons to meet specific needs and goals.”

For Kate, Lauren and Cameron, the program has been both challenging and satisfying.

“We’ve learnt so much, but best of all, it’s been so rewarding to see the progress the kids are making,” says Lauren.

Parents reporting seeing their children improve with new skills including being able to put their head up the water, floating, following instructions and improved communication.

“One child who has very little verbal communication has created her own language. One boy was really scared of the water but will now hold hands and go into the water,” says Cameron.

Positive outcomes for the children


“Charlotte is much more confident around water. She’s gained better swimming skills, can now put her head under water (something we’ve been working on for over 2 years), and float on her own.

This has given her a better sense of self-worth as she has succeeded in something that she hadn’t been able to do previously. She is very proud of herself! She’s also been able to socialise and practice her communications skills.

This sort of program is beneficial for Charlotte because there is a greater understanding of her individual needs. The OTs are encouraging in a gentle manner but persist in supporting skill development. It’s also a program that has other people around who understand Charlotte’s needs so there is no judgement if she makes too much noise or doesn’t want to try something. Everyone is supportive and encouraging.

We are just so grateful that Charlotte has had this opportunity. The skills she is gaining are so beneficial, not only in the practical sense, but for Charlotte’s sense of self and self-esteem. It just builds her confidence up.” – Charlotte’s mum, Tanya


“Annabella has autism and other additional needs that mean she struggles to keep up with other kids and focus on activities.

She hasn’t gone up in a swimming class for many years but I’ve seen improvements from this program. Previously she wasn’t able to float. She is still not quite there but there’s a lot of improvement.

“The small classes make a difference. There is not a lot out there for children with autism. This program has been more than just swimming skills. It’s also been good socially. Today was the first time I’ve seen Annabella hug another child. She finds it hard to make friends, but socially, this has been good. That’s been really nice to see.” – Annabella’s mum, Angelina


“Being in the water is Luke’s happy place. Swimming is not a challenging activity for him because he loves the water, but we want him to be self-aware enough to have survival skills when we’re out in the community at the beach.

Luke has been doing private lessons, but we’d love for him to join a mainstream group. iSplash has given him the time to build his skills in a safe and controlled environment. He’s been doing some new skills like floating on his back.

Being with people in our community who have a disability has been nice too. In mainstream settings, sometimes we don’t feel entirely included. Here it’s been nice to have a sense of friendship, community and camaraderie.” Luke’s mum, Lauren


“Alex has benefitted a lot from iSplash. It’s been invaluable in helping him gain confidence in the water and improve his ability to put water on his head and blow bubbles.

Alex needs small classes and one-to-one teaching due to his limited capacity to follow instructions. Having only a few students in the same class doesn’t arouse his sensory needs and allows him to participate.

I would love Alex to do the program again if available. He has formed a bond with the instructors and loves seeing them.” Alex’s dad, Michael

How the funding helped

Government funding enabled Northcott to run this program free of charge for families. The grant helped to pay for access to the therapy pool, the time for our therapists to plan and run the program, water equipment such as noodles, kickboards, toys, floating mats, continence aids for some children and re-usable swim products. The team hosted a pool party in the Easter holidays for all the families involved.

Our team has also been making resources for swim schools with instructional information to help them better manage the sensory and emotional needs of children who may be neurodiverse.

iSplash was made possible thanks to the Information and Linkages Capacity (ILC) Building program facilitated by the Commonwealth Department of Social Services.

Related content:

Our Active Therapy Space in North Parramatta has recently received an upgrade thanks to donations from multiple funders. Read about our opening day and find out how this new space improves the way Northcott are delivering therapy for children with disability. 

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