Swimmers of all types benefit from the pool, but individuals with Down Syndrome often find the pool to be a special place of inclusion, fitness, and social experiences.

In this blog, we discuss some general characteristics of Down Syndrome and how they pertain to the water and then take a deep dive into two types of sensory profiles. Both of these sensory profiles are seen with this group of swimmers. Try these tips, tricks, and strategies during your next swim lesson or water experience. If you are an aquatic professional, parent, or swim school owner, this article will provide lots of useful information.

General Characteristics

Individuals with Down Syndrome are a diverse group, with varied skills and abilities. These swimmers are loving, social, and enjoy being in the water. Some of them can be a bit rigid, and resistant to new activities, and easily overwhelmed when activities are too hard. These individuals have low muscle tone, meaning their strength can be weak, their muscles can have a squishy feel and be less dense making them very buoyant in the water. Due to their core weakness, they have increased strain and overuse of their rectus abdominal muscle, which helps you do a straight sit up. Since this muscle is overused it may have a small split in it, (called a diastasis). This makes it very important to work on trunk rotation activities for oblique muscle strength, which helps improve this condition. They may posture with an increased arch in their lower back, and a slightly distended stomach, and may tend to lock their joints for stability.

Sensory Profiles and Swim Tips

People who crave a lot of sensory input are called sensory seekers while those who try not to engage in big sensory experiences are called sensory avoiders. The pool and swimming are sensory experiences unlike anything else. From the increased volume of a pool to the deep pressure of the water, swimming is a very unique sensory experience.

Traits and Tips for Sensory Seekers

  • Going underwater- they may be looking for feedback from the whole-body experience of the water and its deep pressure. Use going underwater as part of your swim lesson, maybe as a reward in between swim drills to keep your swimmer engaged and focused.
  • Splashing a lot- they are looking for feedback to muscles and joints by breaking the surface tension of the water.
  • Sometimes this swimmer might look like they are not engaged or interested, but what they need is some movement to wake up their body. If they don’t respond to this, try movement that is more intense. Maybe instead of moving up and down try moving in a circle since this is more intense stimulation for the vestibular system.
  • Drinking water and swimming with an open mouth may be due to seeking more movement and deep pressure. Give them some movement to help satisfy their sensory seeking behavior (drinking the water), followed by a heavy work activity to get organized. For example, moving forward and back holding a barbell on your belly, followed by rowing the barbell underwater.
  • Intense movement seekers- for this group the vestibular input (moving in space) may have to be more intense than expected. Vestibular movement should be tried in the following order (also order of intensity from mild to most intense): Up and down movement, then spinning in a circle, and then the most intense input is inversion (like doing a forward roll under water).

Traits and Tips for Sensory Avoiders

  • Swimmers that are fearful getting into the pool- this can be due to the fear of their feet leaving the floor, the extra noise in the pool setting, or many other causes. Spend extra time at the stairs, neck-deep in water, and let the water work its magic by providing the deep pressure, which releases dopamine and can lessen anxiety.
  • A great tip for the fearful swimmer is to spend a few minutes jumping up and down at the stairs and then move to a rhythmical movement activity along the side of the pool away from the stairs. Climbing out at the side of the pool and doing a simple “Simon says” activity, can make them feel calmer and more organized. You can change “Simon says” to swim skill benchmarks if you notice the singing and game playing is working. Establishing this as a routine can decrease anxiety and increase swimming success.
  • A tight-fitting wet suit, ear band, or a bathing cap can be beneficial to sensory avoiders because it gives more pressure around their body which is calming.

Tips, Tricks, and Strategies for Both Sensory Profiles

  • Use small wrist weights on the swimmer’s ankles, or canvas shoes that sink, to provide a feeling of grounding and decreased buoyancy. This will help increase body awareness so that they can kick in the pool and have better control of their body. Use this strategy for 5-10 minutes then take them off. You will be so surprised how quickly this works.
  • A long sleeve cotton shirt, leggings, or socks in the water give input and resistance to the body and can help and anxious swimmers counteract buoyancy by increasing stability.
  • Flippers, Zoomers, and Boosters can increase propulsion providing the swimmers with better movement as they kick. If your swimmer has decreased strength you can start with Boosters, then Zoomers, and finally the flippers. If they crave and seek input the flipper will give them a sense of heavy work and resistance as they kick.
  • Swimming with small dumbbells and pushing them under the water as they do freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, or butterfly gives a lot of input to the arms. For the weaker swimmer, put them under their armpits as this will be easier.
  • Holding a semi-deflated ball and kicking while rolling to your back and belly can begin the swim skill of a rollover or changing directions for the seeker. For the anxious swimmer, the ball gives a full body flexion feeling which is very calming.

We have had the pleasure of getting to know so many swimmers with Down Syndrome across the lifespan. We have had many swimmers start in our “Jumpstart mom and me” class, for ages 1-3, to empower the parents on therapeutic activities they can be doing in the water with their child, which carries over into their land-based goals, as well as gets them comfortable with basic swim skills. This class is a great way to prepare a young child for private lessons since they first can get comfortable with their Mom or Dad. We even have our older swimmers with Down Syndrome come back to volunteer for this program and help motivate and engage the younger swimmers in the class.

We offer a variety of swim groups focusing on fitness, socialization, and a swim team. At one point we even ran a summer camp and gave one of our older swimmers with Down Syndrome an opportunity to work as an assistant counselor at the camp. He felt such a sense of belonging and was so proud to be a part of our staff. Not only did his co-workers grow from the experience of working alongside him, the campers and families were incredibly inspired and motivated by him.

Independence and a love of swimming is an important skill to impart on these swimmers for so many reasons. It is a great source of health, fitness, and overall wellbeing as they get older. It is a wonderful opportunity for independent recreation, leisure, and socialization, especially when they join teams, and get to compete in events like the Special Olympics. At Swim Angelfish we have created a community of inclusion and acceptance by increasing the programs we offer to meet the growing needs of these amazing swimmers! If you would like to become a Swim Whisperer® and are interested in bringing this program to your community check out our Certification program.

This blog is the third in a series of eight posts. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or check back on our site for upcoming articles offering adaptive swimming tips for swimmers with trauma, autism, anxiety, physical, delays, motor, sensory, and/or discomfort. Swimmers with challenges deserve specifically trained instructors who have the tools necessary to help the swimmer overcome the underlying problems for safe experience in near and around water.