Aquatic Therapy for Children with Sensory Needs
Children of all ages and abilities usually enjoy being in the water. This can be especially true for children with sensory processing difficulties such as those who have Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Developmental Delay, and Sensory Processing Disorder.
Water is a unique environment that provides gentle pressure, buoyancy, and soothing support that has many benefits for children with sensory needs.
When children are immersed in water, it can not only help them with sensory processing skills but also improve their motor performance, strengthen social and communication skills, and improve self-regulation abilities.
First, we’ll talk about how being in an aquatic environment can help strengthen sensory processing skills. There are 4 ways in which it can help. We will explain and discuss each of these in more detail.
1. Hydrostatic Pressure:
Children with sensory difficulties often love deep pressure. Similar to a weighted blanket, when the child is immersed in water, it completely surrounds and envelopes the child’s body distributing an equal and consistent amount of pressure on all submerged parts of the body. This pressure that the liquid exerts is called hydrostatic pressure. The result is an especially calming environment that soothes the child, helps them concentrate and organize other sensory inputs, and gives them more confidence to try new movements.
2. Vestibular stimulation:
The human vestibular system includes parts of the inner ear and brain that help control balance and eye movements. Some of the repetitive behaviors that children sometimes exhibit, such as rocking and twirling are directly related to an underdeveloped vestibular system. Children engage in these activities because they are trying, by external measures, to develop a sense of balance. Moving in water naturally creates a rotatory torque on the body providing effective and enhanced vestibular stimulation. Children are also able to more easily change positions while in the water, such as going from standing to floating, which activates their vestibular system allowing them to experience increased vestibular input. This increase in vestibular input allows for a reduction in spatial imbalance that results from vestibular disorders.
Proprioception sometimes called our sixth-sense, is how a person understands where their body is in space. An underdeveloped proprioceptive system can result in movements that can be clumsy or erratic.In water, the resistance children encounter when they move, the feel of water rushing past them, and the hydrostatic pressure all combine to give enhanced proprioceptive feedback and improve this sense.
4. Visual processing:
In the pool, the therapist or parent has the ability to challenge the visual systems in ways unachievable on land. Because light refracts when traveling from air to water the pool can create a nice training ground for children who rely too heavily on visual cues.Additionally, there are certain elements intrinsic to water (turbulence, splashing of water, water jets) that create a visual, tactile and proprioceptive feast. This makes it possible for children to feel what they see and vision becomes palpable.
In this manner, aquatic therapy promotes enhanced body awareness, improved touch tolerance, and a better ability to organize all of the various sensory inputs to focus on the correct one.
In addition to all of the sensory processing benefits, aquatic therapy also helps children improve their motor performance. Being in water makes the body lighter and more buoyant, and reduces the fear of injury, making children feel more confident trying new movements that they might never try on land. This in turn promotes improved body awareness and motor planning.
Other physical benefits of exercising in water include reduced pain and stress on joints and muscles, a strengthened core and enhanced breathing control.
Some children with sensory needs may have reduced oro-motor skills, which means they can have difficulty using a straw or blowing out candles. Aquatic therapy allows children to improve their oro-motor skills and respiratory control as they learn to blow bubbles or blow small items, like a ping pong ball across the surface of the water.
Social and Communication Benefits
On top of all of the other benefits of aquatic therapy, being in water is fun and motivating. After an aquatic therapy session, parents and therapists often report better moods, better impulse control, decreased anxiety, and a marked drop in problem behaviors.
Additionally, the pool environment can be uniquely normalizing and allow children a freedom they might not have on land or in a wheelchair. In the water, they can move and play just like anyone else. For many children with special needs, this is an added psychological benefit.