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Ian and Miss Debby’s Incredible Journey
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Deborah Griffith MacSwain
July 16, 2007

Ian is a young boy who takes Red Cross water adjustment and swim classes at Ft. Carson, Colorado. He sees the swimming pool as a “blue river” and the diving board as the “plank.” He loves the water and likes to splash, and when he climbs the ladder he says, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel.”

Using their “toilet paper” swim aids, Debby McSwain and Ian practice leg kicks.
Using their “toilet paper” swim aids, Debby McSwain and Ian practice leg kicks.
(Photo Credit: American Red Cross)

Ian’s story is like that of any other 5-year-old child, but with some important twists and turns. Ian makes little (if any) eye contact with others and does not like to be touched. He sometimes says “No, no, no” when approached. His verbal communication consists of only a few words, and he often mimics the person he is with and says things that make sense to him, but not to others.

Ian has autism, a developmental disorder characterized by impaired communication skills and social interactions and by restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior. I am Ian’s swimming instructor. For me, the sessions with Ian have been an incredible journey of joy.

Early Successes

Ian has taken 15 lessons thus far, and in each of those 45-minute sessions he has achieved some form of success that might not be discernable to a bystander but is, according to his mother, “huge.” For example, during the fourth or fifth lesson, while showing Ian how to hold his breath, I watched him push my bulging cheeks together and laugh. He thought it was pretty funny, and so did I. I knew right then he was having fun and beginning to enjoy the lessons.

Persuading him to let me pull him through the water with his legs out (so he can kick) took a few tries. “Let’s be a shark in the water,” I suggested. “No shark,” he countered. “Jonah the whale.” So a whale he was, and a speedy one at that, always wanting to “go fast, no slow.”

Asking Ian to jump into the pool did not work in the usual way. He liked to jump while holding my hands. When he said, “Miss Debby, Miss Debby, hold hands,” I knew Ian was making progress beyond swimming. Once, when he jumped in and his head went under the water, he came up and proudly said, “Ian under water.” That was a milestone for him.

I learned early to use two swim aids—one for Ian and one for me. Swim bars, which are poles with white round buoys on the ends, are used in training and therapy programs. Ian called them “toilet paper” because that’s what they looked like to him. The “toilet paper” bars became a useful teaching tool. Ian and I would race, holding on to our respective “toilet paper” and kicking. Of course, Ian always won!

Key Turning Point

Lesson 13 was a key turning point for Ian—he went under the water on his own after watching me. Emerging with thumbs up, he exclaimed, “That was super, Ian.” During that same lesson, he also jumped into the 3’ section without holding my hands. While climbing the ladder to jump, he proclaimed himself “Prince Charming,” to which I responded, “Yes, Ian, you are my Prince Charming.” I later learned he was watching a DVD at home on the classic fairy tales.

Lessons 14 and 15 were even more dramatic. Ian had been watching someone swim the back crawl stroke, and he imitated it by walking backward and moving his arms. I knew he had the ability to float if I could just get him to try it, so I asked three water safety instructors to get in the water and help. I figured that if I talked while they performed the skill, maybe Ian would try the skill with me.

The other instructors got into the water and showed Ian how to float on his stomach and then on his back. He tried the front float with some degree of success, but the back float was the big winner. When I held Darla Hansen, a fellow WSI, in the back float position, Ian grabbed my arm and turned himself over on his back. I was holding both Darla and Ian, and I was so excited I wanted to jump up and down! Afterward, Ian practiced the back float with me and Darla, thus taking another big step by letting someone else work with him in the water.

Proud of His Accomplishments

Ian has come a long way toward learning basic swimming skills and is signed up for group lessons. His family is proud of his accomplishments, as they have every reason to be. Ian’s father, a staff sergeant serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq, was able to attend Ian’s first lesson prior to his deployment. He will return to see a little boy who is fascinated with, and having fun in, the water.

As Commodore Wilbert Longfellow, founder of the Red Cross Life Saving Corps (the forerunner of today’s water safety program), once said, “Water unlocks inhibitions.” In Ian’s case, these words really are true, much to the delight of those around him.

The American Red Cross helps people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. Last year, almost a million volunteers and 35,000 employees helped victims of almost 75,000 disasters; taught lifesaving skills to millions; and helped U.S. service members separated from their families stay connected. Almost 4 million people gave blood through the Red Cross, the largest supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. The American Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.

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