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August 5th, 2017

Two women teaching a young child to swim with a pool noodle.

Swimming is a fun activity that most children learn at an early age. However, swimming in a traditional program has been a challenge for many youth with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder).

As drowning is a leading cause of death for children with autism, it is imperative that children with ASD receive the proper swim and water safety instruction to learn this necessary and lifesaving skill. To address this critical need, The Kennedy Center recently created “Healing Waters” Swim Lessons at the Stratford YMCA.

“We started ‘Healing Waters’ Swim Lessons over the summer and the response from participants and parents has been phenomenal,” said Ariel Gagliardo, Supervisor of Therapeutic Services at The Kennedy Center. "Thirteen signed up for the program. It is unbelievable how much confidence these children have gained from the experience. We successfully turned these non-swimmers into water enthusiasts.” Swimming provides invaluable benefits for children with autism, as well as providing a social outlet for them. Swimming can help a child with ASD improve their speech, coordination, social skills, self-esteem, and cognitive processing.

The Kennedy Center is offering these swim and water safety lessons to all families regardless of income. Scholarships are available due to the generosity of the Autism Speaks Swimming and Water Safety Scholarship Award. The next two sessions are scheduled from September 16 to October 21 and then October 28 to December 9. For the next year, Autism Speaks will provide up to $2,000 per quarter for scholarships to families who qualify based on financial needs and other family circumstances.

“Swimming is an important lifelong skill that children with and without disabilities should learn,” said Martin D. Schwartz, President and CEO of The Kennedy Center. “We are extremely grateful to Autism Speaks for providing generous scholarships to families enrolled in our new ‘Healing Waters’ Swim Lessons. There is no other program like ‘Healing Waters’ in the region and I commend our amazing staff for designing such an innovative program.”

The class teaches basic water safety and swimming techniques. Specifically, the sessions focus on exercise, increased range of motion, strength, endurance, coordination, sensory processing, concentration, impulse control and ability to follow directions. To promote successful learning, lessons combine evidence-based teaching methods with sensory strategies matched to the unique needs of each child

Karin Guariglia, a Registered Occupational Therapist, teaches the swim classes using a holistic approach that is therapeutic and fun. This six-week program is offered on Saturdays at the Stratford YMCA. No program is scheduled on November 25. Children can enroll in both sessions, if desired. Classes have a small staff to child ratio and are offered for ages 6-9 from 10:45 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. and ages 10-13 from noon to 1 p.m. The fee is $285. No child will be excluded unless there is a medical reason.

“We are excited to once again offer ‘Healing Waters” to children with ASD,” said Ariel Gagliardo, Supervisor of Therapeutic Services at The Kennedy Center. “Each week we introduce a new skill. We have purposely created small classes to adapt to the needs of each child."

“Swimming is an activity that can overwhelm the senses for children with ASD, from bright lights, loud whistles, strong chlorine smells and the texture of the pool floor. We cover desensitizing activities, including touching water, blowing bubbles, pouring water on their bodies and face submersion. It’s all part of the learning process.”

For more information contact: Ariel Gagliardo at 203-332-4535 ext. 258 or [email protected]

This program is offered through The Kennedy Center’s Autism Project, a program dedicated to providing affordable comprehensive programs and services to families and children with ASD. Since 2006, The Autism Project has served more than 500 families and has become one of the leading providers in Fairfield and New Haven Counties of these supports for children with ASD and their families.

The Autism Project provides children and families with information referral and resources; family support and service coordination, financial assistance, support for children in community activities, wrap-around supports, experienced staff and new services for unmet needs within the community.

Autism Speaks is the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization. It is dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. Autism Speaks was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Since its inception, Autism Speaks has committed more than $570 million to its mission, the majority in science and medical research. On the global front, Autism Speaks has established partnerships in more than 70 countries on five continents to foster international research, services and awareness. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit

Autism Speaks is dedicated to promoting solutions, across the spectrum and throughout the lifespan, for the needs of individuals with autism and their families through advocacy and support; increasing understanding and acceptance of people with autism spectrum disorder; and advancing research into causes and better interventions for autism spectrum disorder and related conditions.