VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Swimming at the beach or pool with your children may be a worry-free activity. For parents who have children diagnosed with autism, it might consist of always being on the lookout, making sure their child is safe.
That includes Becca Ellis and her 7-year-old son, Robert.
"Ultimately, he gets calmed down, and he is really peaceful on the water and he really enjoys it,” Ellis said.
She said finding swim lessons for her son, ones that are customized to meet the needs of children with autism, has been a struggle.
“As a mom of a child who is not neurotypical and has problems with delays in his physical abilities,” Ellis said, “it’s difficult to watch him out there, kind of unaware of not knowing really what to do and to have him enjoy it so much."
However, she is not the only parent.
"We heard time and time again from a lot of families that come to our center for therapy and other services,” Kiley Elward, the Eliza Hope Foundation’s vice president of development and fundraising said, “’There’s just nothing here for us.’"
That is why the Eliza Hope Foundation, a local organization that provides services and resources to children with autism and their families, started a new swim program called the Eliza Hope Swim Stars. The eight-week swim program is tailored to help teach children with autism how to swim and how to be safe in the water at their pace.
The children and their parents gathered at the Lynnhaven Dive Center, which is providing the pool space for the program, on Wednesday when the first session kicked off. The Eliza Hope Swim Stars program is also made possible thanks to a $44,000 grant from Sentara Healthcare.
“The need for this program is huge,” Elward said. “Ninety percent of accidental deaths that occur with children with autism occur from drowning."
Information from the National Autism Association states that drownings are the leading causes of death for children with autism. It also states most of those drownings happen in children ages 14 and younger.
With the Eliza Hope Swim Stars, the parents do not seem to worry, and neither do the children.
“I’m just so happy that this is happening for us,” Ellis said. “I think all of us parents can say were really, really blessed that this is here in Hampton Roads."
The Eliza Hope Foundation said the next swim program will begin in September and registration will commence in August. If you would like more information on the program, register your child or donate to the program, click here to be taken to the Eliza Hope Swim Stars' webpage.