Faces of Goldfish: Making Waves for Autism Acceptance

With more than 100 schools across North America, Goldfish Swim School can be found coast to coast. From Aliso Viejo, CA to Yorktown Heights, NY, thousands of families call Goldfish home. As our Goldfish Family continues to grow, we want to introduce you to some of the incredible parents, swimmers, team members and partners who are part of our amazing community—each of whom bring a unique perspective to the conversation of swimming and water safety.

April is Autism Acceptance Month. To celebrate, we’re recognizing members of our Goldfish Family who are using their voices to advocate for the importance of water safety education for all children.

As we heard from the founders of Alijah’s Awareness, drowning poses a significant risk for autistic children. Having lost their daughter, Alijah, to a drowning accident while vacationing in Florida, they’re committed to preventing another family from feeling their heartbreak and are generously donating ten swim lesson scholarships in Alijah’s honor to families near the Winter Park, FL area. We're honored to support the incredible work this family is doing and appreciate their commitment to creating meaningful and impactful change around the conversation of water safety for all.

Today, we’d like to introduce you to two Goldfish moms from Ohio and Arkansas, as we share their thoughts on creating a safer, more inclusive future for autistic children, and how swim lessons have supported their children's growth and development in (and out!) of the pool.

MEET THE ROSS FAMILY

Cassie Ross’ sons, Parker (9) and Henry (4), both take swim lessons at Goldfish Swim School - Rogers NWA. Since joining our Goldfish Family this past fall, both boys have excelled, with Parker going from Glider 3 to Pro 1, and Henry advancing from Junior 1 to Junior 3.

"In a world where we don’t get to “pass” a lot of things, passing swim levels is a BIG deal!” Cassie told us. “My son, Henry, was diagnosed with nonverbal autism this past fall, and it’s been a struggle to find activities, outside of therapy, that he can safely participate in—especially during the pandemic.”

In Cassie’s search to find an activity that would give Henry something to look forward to, and provide him with additional support, she discovered Goldfish. Having heard great things from other parents, she reached out to her local Goldfish in Rogers, AR to learn more about their approach to teaching kids how to swim, and if they had any special needs programming that would accommodate her son’s needs. Within 30 minutes she received a call back from someone on their team who understood her questions and concerns. The rest, she says, is history!

“We’ve been going once a week for 30 minutes ever since,” she said. “He has a private lesson and it’s been an absolute joy for us to watch him excel at something he enjoys.”

After countless hours in speech therapy, occupational therapy and ABA each week, swimming is a welcomed addition to the Ross family’s busy schedule.

“From the moment Henry arrives for swim lessons and walks through the door, he lights up with a big smile from ear-to-ear,” Cassie said. “It’s the happiest 30 minutes of his entire week. For us to be able to give him 30 minutes of fun, where he can be himself and happy in the pool, brings us joy in return.”

As a family, the Ross’ spend a lot of time near the water and enjoy swimming at their neighborhood pool. While water safety has always been important to them, they felt it was especially important for Henry to learn how to be safe in and around water.

“Part of Henry’s autism is that he has no concept of fear or danger, and he has a tendency to elope, so the world can be a dangerous place for our family,” she shared. “It is really important for us to have peace of mind and know that all of the skills he’s learned at Goldfish, like how to get to get out of the pool, could help him save himself if he gets into a dangerous situation.”

Over the past six months, Cassie says she’s seen a significant improvement in both of her sons’ swim abilities and commented on how swim lessons have supported Henry’s progress and development outside of the pool, too!

“Henry also has hypotonia - decreased muscle tone in his belly and legs,” she shared. “This makes it hard for him to do certain activities, like riding bikes. Swimming has helped him build up his core muscle strength, and is something we feel has been therapeutic for him in that way.”

Henry is a visual learner who benefits from seeing pictures and doing things repetitively, and Cassie has found the visual "splash book" Goldfish Rogers NWA uses during swim lessons to be an effective tool instructors use to communicate with her son and show him which types of swim skills they’ll be working on together during class. In addition to diving for rings, his favorite thing to do in class is ride on the big foam crocodile—and Cassie says he knows exactly which page it’s on!

In addition to using the “splash book”, Henry’s instructor (who is pursuing a degree in special education) also utilizes keywords and sign language to teach him how to swim.

“It’s been remarkable to see how well Goldfish has been able to teach him!” she told us. We’ve even been able to use the successes he’s having with Goldfish and take some of the things they’re using to teach him into his classroom as well.”

Cassie went on to say how extraordinary it’s been to watch her child thrive, excel and succeed in swimming.

“When you have a kid with special needs, you’re constantly being told what they can’t do,” she shared. “We’re in multiple meetings throughout the year with therapists, doctors and teachers, and the conversation is usually centered around developmental standards Henry isn’t meeting when it comes to speech, motor and cognitive skills. So, when he passes a swim level or gets a ribbon, it’s a BIG deal, and a breath of fresh air, because we don’t get that often. The pool has been the great equalizer for him. When kids are in the water, they’re all on the same level, and it’s been incredible to watch Henry pass two swim levels and stay within his peer group in swimming.”

Cassie encourages families with special needs children to reach out to their local Goldfish Swim School and start a conversation about how they may be able to support their child’s needs.

“The entire team at our local Goldfish is amazing. They all welcome and accept Henry for who he is. They let him be him, and we are so appreciative of how open minded they were to taking a child that is nonverbal and finding opportunities to tap into his learning style. Everyone wants to ensure he’s happy and safe, and that’s a huge relief and blessing to our family. I can’t tell you another place in town where we get that kind of experience.”

MEET THE BUZZARD FAMILY

All three of Kacie Buzzard’s kids (Vivian, Caroline and Gideon) have taken swim lessons at Goldfish, each benefitting from the experience in their own unique way.

Her oldest, Vivian (11), went on to join the Swim Force team after graduating from lessons.

“Vivian is a very creative soul. She loves nature and is not terribly athletic. We loved Goldfish for Vivian because it allowed her to work toward a goal at her own pace and engage in physical activity in a non-competitive way,” she shared.

Caroline (10) has ALWAYS loved the water. She also has level 3 ASD, ADHD, epilepsy, DDX3X and is nonverbal, but none of these stop her from living life her way. Anyone who’s gotten the chance to know her will tell you her joy and passion for activities she loves, including swimming, is infectious!

“Caroline is all personality and makes sure people notice when she enters a room,” Kacie shared. “Not only does she love swimming, she has been intensely interested in marine life for years and just recently she gained interest in lifeguards. Because she loves water so much and doesn’t fully understand danger (she has a tendency to elope), we knew early on that learning how to swim was essential for her safety.”

Gideon (4), is also on the autism spectrum (level 1 ASD) and loves superheroes, cooking and spending time with family. Kacie says he was her only child to go through a period of not liking the water, but that his feelings soon changed after starting swim lessons at Goldfish.

“Gideon was not comfortable in the water when he started at Goldfish—there were tears for the first few lessons,” she said. “But, now he looks forward to swimming every week!”

Although Caroline and Gideon are both autistic, and have been diagnosed with ADHD, they couldn’t be more different.

“If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism,” Kacie said. “It’s a phrase in the autism community that means just because you know one person with autism doesn’t mean you know anything about another person with autism. Many times the differences among people with autism are greater than the similarities. For instance, Caroline and Gideon are exact opposites. While Caroline is nonverbal, Gideon is very verbal. Caroline is a sensory-seeker, meaning she loves loud sounds, strong tastes and bright lights, whereas Gideon is sensitive to most sensory input and avoids it. Caroline also has a developmental delay, but is academically advanced in some areas. Gideon does not have a developmental delay. ”

While Caroline and Gideon participate in traditional therapies, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy and ABA, to develop skills to increase their independence, Kacie says she tries to find activities that provide them with opportunities to develop skills in a more natural environment. In addition to swimming, Caroline and Gideon both participate in karate (they’ve each earned yellow belts), adapted dance, music therapy (Gideon plays the drums) and horseback riding.

“My kids have a lot of energy,” she said. “Activities, like swimming, are a great way for them to channel that energy, interact with peers of all ability levels and work on developing skills, like following directions, motor planning and balance.

When it comes to swim lessons, Kacie says the skills her kids are learning at Goldfish have helped them in (and out!) of the pool.

“I love seeing the excitement on Gideon’s face when he earns a ribbon or masters a new skill!” she shared. “Not only has he become more comfortable in the water, his teacher and therapists have noted that he is stronger and more coordinated since starting lessons.”

As for Caroline, Kacie says swim lessons have helped increase her strength, improve her motor planning and coordination and give her the opportunity to work on following directions, like sitting next to typical peers and waiting for her turn—something she says Caroline was not able to do when she started swim lessons at Goldfish.

“When Caroline goes to a public pool, I can see lifeguards watching her very carefully as she enters the water. She verbally stims a lot – especially around water – so it is obvious she has some differences. The guards' surprise at Caroline’s swimming ability is evident every time she enters the water.”

Kacie went on to mention how much her kids love their instructors at Goldfish.

“We moved to the Cleveland area just as Goldfish Fairview Park was opening. We met with the owners to explain the specific needs of Caroline and they worked with us to find the right instructor for her,” she shared. “ Caroline loves her instructors and talks about Ms. Abby all week.”

Although Caroline had previously been taking private lessons, her parents wanted to explore the possibility of having her join a group class with other peers her age, and were pleasantly surprised at how supportive their local Goldfish was in terms of helping their family make that transition.

“This is not the typical response I receive when I try to enroll Caroline into group classes with typical peers,” she said. “Goldfish’s response was a welcomed change.”

When it comes to autism, Kacie wants more people to understand that awareness alone is not enough, and that when you truly accept autism and take the time to really get to know autistic people they will introduce you to an entirely new way of looking at the world.

SWIM LESSONS TO HELP ALL KIDS REACH THEIR HIGHEST POTENTIAL

We know how difficult it can be for parents of autistic children to find activities that focus on their child’s ability rather than disability. We also understand that every child learns differently - in their own ways, and at their own speeds. That’s why we’ve created a safe, fun and welcoming environment where children of all abilities can learn how to swim—a place where they can push past their comfort zone, jump into new experiences and discover hidden abilities and talents.

Using our research-based approach to learning through guided play, our instructors help educate children about water safety while teaching them how to swim, and celebrate their progress every step of the way. Courage, confidence and companionship—it’s all part of providing every child with a GOLDEN experience!

Have questions or want to learn more about swim lessons for your children? We encourage you to reach out to a Goldfish Swim School near you, as they’d love to learn more about your family and how they can help your children achieve extraordinary things!

Each Goldfish Swim School is independently owned and operated. Please check with your local Goldfish for more information on their lesson offerings and schedules.

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