Holy Cross Swim Park aims to make swimming more inclusive for children with autism

Kids love going swimming, but for children with autism the loud noises and big crowds at the pool can cause sensory overload leading to anxiety, stress and behavioural issues.

But there are ways to make the activity more inclusive. Aimee Coles, the community inclusion co-ordinator at the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, says the quiet hour swims at Holy Cross Swim Park in Holyrood are doing just that.

"We've asked them to turn off the music that they would normally play. We do have ASNL staff on site that will provide some extra support if it is needed," Coles said.

"It's also just a great opportunity for some of our families to engage in more socialization."

The quiet hour swim on August 17 is the second such event at the outdoor swim park. Bad weather affected the turnout at the first event in July, but the forecast is promising and organizers are expecting more attendees this time around.

The special swim is the latest in a trend toward making more spaces and activities more welcoming for people with autism. Grocery stores, indoor playgrounds and even sci-fi festivals have offered sensory-friendly accommodations. 

A growing need

There is a growing need for sensory-friendly spaces and activities, particularly in this province, says Tess Hemeon, the chief operating officer of advocacy and communications at ASNL.

"Newfoundland and Labrador actually has the highest incidence rate of autism in the country," Hemeon said.

"So I think it's few and far between that you're gonna find a family that doesn't have a neighbour or a friend or an aunt or an uncle or someone who knows someone with autism."

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Hemeon said that because of these personal connections more people than ever are reaching out to the ASNL, looking for ways to improve the lives of loved ones with autism. 

Sometimes it's an individual, and sometimes it's a community or municipality that identifies a need and reaches out to ASNL. No matter what the activity or concern, Hebeon encourages people to get in touch.

"We're open to anything. If a family came to us and said, 'I want my kid to try darts,' we will figure it out," Hebeon said.

It makes our recreation programming more inclusive. - Steve Martin

Steve Martin is the director of recreation and community events with the town of Holyrood. He says the partnership with ASNL has been mutually beneficial. 

"It makes our recreation programming more inclusive," Martin said.

"And at the same time, the Autism Society is getting another different facility to do programming with."

The town is now thinking beyond the summer and looking for ways to make their recreation programming more inclusive year-round.

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"We are looking at increasing our inclusive opportunities for the fall," Martin said. 

"We will have a new sensory [friendly] program in Holyrood that will be each Sunday starting in October."

The program will provide a general playgroup for children with autism or other sensory issues, so they can get the benefits of group play in an environment suited to their needs.

You can find out more information about the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador's upcoming sensory-friendly events online.

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