City mum calls for swimming provision for autistic children

Hazel Hammond


Hazel Hammond


AN Armagh mother whose two young sons are autistic has hit out at the lack of swimming provision available across the borough for children with the condition.

Mother-of-five, Joanne McCracken has been left frustrated by the absence of swimming lessons or small group lessons for children, such as her sons Tiernen (11) and Caolan (8), who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Joanne, who is chair of the More Than Words Autism Support Group/youth club – which she established in 2016 as a support network for other families - told the Ulster Gazette: “Many parents share my frustration and struggle to find any swimming classes suitable for their children’s needs.

“Children with a diagnosis of autism are 160 times more likely to die from drowning, research shows.

“Given the exceptionally heightened risk of drowning, swimming classes should be the intervention of top priority within the health trust, education system, and our council areas.

“I am very lucky that my son has received lessons within his school from Primary 1, but not all schools provide swimming lessons for their ASD centres, not all children with a diagnosis of autism are in an ASD specific class and are in a mainstream setting and these mainstream classes only start swimming lessons in Primary 5.

“Swimming needs be part of the curriculum for a child with a diagnosis of ASD from Primary 1.

“Due to the increased risks, and a number of factors, such as wandering, elopement, lack of awareness around dangerous situations, communication skills, lack of services specialising in children with ASD, swimming needs to be prioritised as an intervention therapy and not just a leisure sport.”

While Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council vowed in 2019 to make the area autism friendly, Joanne feels more still needs to be done.

“Although some of their facilities have taken part in the Autism NI Impact Award, training staff and raising awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder, they are not listening to the needs of parents.

“I lobbied councillors to make ABC Borough a more inclusive borough, but I feel they are box ticking, throwing around the word ‘inclusive’ and not actually providing the services for families.

“Due to the lack of swimming lessons tailored for our kids, I decided to meet with a leisure facility myself along with a local councillor before Covid-19, only to be disappointed by their lack of support and no understanding for the importance of teaching autistic children how to swim or provide a quiet hour at a reasonable time so parents could take their children to the pool themselves.

“I was met with excuse after excuse. I feel that the leisure facility and council do not see the seriousness of the situation and don’t see autism families and their children in the same light as someone walking in off the street to have a dip in the pool.

“This is not inclusive, this is the opposite of inclusive and many families in Armagh feel the same and share my frustration.

“Swimming for autistic individuals is not just a hobby or an afternoon of fun in the pool.

“It is drowning prevention, invaluable therapy, and the issues around the lack of swimming provision needs to be addressed,” Joanne added.

The Ulster Gazette contacted Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council for comment, but at the time of going to press, no response had been provided.

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