March 24, 2008

Swim program helps children with special needs

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Labels simply can't define children or their potential. That's what the Adapted Youth Swim program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is proving.

Children of various ages, with some special loving care and instruction, find that they can be safe and have fun in the water regardless of autism or physical disabilities.

"This has been a wonderful program for children with special needs," said Kathy L. Hollister, assistant director of special populations for Recreational Sports and Services (RSS) at SIUC. "It's helped them grow and develop and parents have been very pleased with the outcomes. It has also been an outstanding opportunity for college students to gain experience working with children who have autism and physical disabilities."

Alessa M. Brennan, a graduate student in behavior analysis and therapy, is coordinator of the program. Brennan, daughter of Jo Ann and Jerry Altenbach of Blue Island, near Chicago, earned her bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation at SIUC and is a certified therapeutic recreation specialist and an American Red Cross certified lifeguard and water safety instructor. After an internship in Utah, Brennan has been involved with the SIUC Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders and found herself drawn to children with autistic disorders.

Prior to the start of the 2007 spring semester, she asked about renting pool space from RSS to offer swim lessons for autistic children. She found that the adapted youth swimming program for children with physical disabilities had begun at RSS the in the fall 2006 semester. Soon, a marriage of those programs took place.

After individualized evaluations in line with Red Cross teaching levels, the children get specialized instruction from Brennan, her assistant Justin S. Drexler, or any of the 12-15 SIUC student volunteers courtesy of RSS, the Saluki Volunteer Corps or the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders. Brennan said it starts with the basics of blowing bubbles and going underwater. Then children learn to swim various strokes. Water games give children the chance to work on water skills as they interact with others and have a whale of a good time. Of course, there's always the ultimate swim treat at the end – jumping off the diving board.

"I like knowing the kids have something to look forward to and it teaches them the skills so their parents can know they're safe around the water," Brennan said. "I like to see the kids happy and smiling. The parents trust this program too. They know me and they know the volunteers and everything and that we know how to work with their children. A lot of the parents have pools and they want to feel like their children are safe around water. It's so much fun for the kids too."

Drexler, a senior recreation major with a minor in kinesthiology, has been involved since the program's inception. The son of Steve and Ina Drexler of Buffalo Grove, he is active in Special Olympics and worked in northern Illinois in a day camp program that paired up individuals with children needing assistance. While working with children with disabilities, he's found this youth swimming program a wonderful way to encourage children to participate in a swimming class and expand their horizons.

"This class proves that anyone can swim, it doesn't matter who they are or what their disabilities may be," Drexler said. "This makes me more aware that people can't define you. It's a chance to show those with disabilities can do daily activities no matter how people want to label you."

Drexler plans to intern in the fall with the Wheeling Park District and hopefully return to Southern Illinois for graduate school and a career in therapeutic recreation, he said.

Brennan plans to graduate later this year and then plans to continue her work providing in-home therapy with autism clients. She's also hopeful of expanding the SIUC Adapted Youth Swim program as the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders is writing a grant proposal that would enable them to purchase more equipment for the popular program, she said.

The next Adapted Youth Swim session begins Saturday, March 29, at Pulliam Pool. It meets weekly for four weeks with three 40-minute time slots to choose from: 1-1:40 p.m., 1:45-2:25 p.m. or 2:30-3:10 p.m. Parents may register children at the SIUC Student Recreation Center administrative office or download the registration form online at

For pricing information and details about the autism portion of the program, contact Brennan at 618/926-7776 or via e-mail at For more details about the program for children with other disabilities, contact Hollister at 618/453-1267 or by e-mail at Registration is due by Friday, March 28. Due to the individual attention given each child, class sizes are limited.