Levi Rogers has arrived for his swimming lesson at the UT Health East Texas indoor pool in Olympic Plaza.
He bounds into the pool area half bouncing and half skipping and gives his swim instructor a huge hug, grabbing her around the waist. He’s so excited that he can barely contain himself.
Levi, who recently turned 6, can’t wait to get into the water with Gay Tyra, an aquatics specialist at UT Health East Texas.
Trailing a few steps behind Levi is his mother, Eleanor Rogers.
“Levi loves his swimming lessons,” she says of her son’s exuberance.
Levi is the youngest son of Gerald and Eleanor Rogers of Tyler. They also have a son, Quinton, who is 10.
Eleanor Rogers said when Levi was a baby he was easily distracted and started talking later than other children. She was told by others not to worry because all children are different.
When their family pediatrician, Dr. Ellen Melton, noticed that Levi was not hitting developmental guidelines for his age, she recommended that he be tested for autism.
Tests came back showing that Levi was on the autism spectrum and also had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Autism affects about 1 in 59 children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those with autism have, in varying degrees, trouble with social skills and speech and nonverbal communication, and they exhibit repetitive behaviors.
Indicators of autism usually appear by ages 2 or 3. Experts say there is not one autism but many subtypes and that most are influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Autism often is accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues, such as gastrointestinal disorders, seizures or sleep disorders, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and attention issues, according to Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy group.
The ways in which people with autism learn, think and solve problems range from highly skilled to severely challenged.
“I was lost,” Rogers said of learning of Levi’s diagnosis.
She began reading everything she could about autism and how she and her husband could best meet Levi’s needs.
The Rogerses eventually enrolled Levi in special education programs at Tyler ISD and Cumberland Academy. He also attends classes at the Treatment and Learning Center for Children with Autism.
At the Treatment and Learning Center in Tyler, Levi receives applied behavioral analysis therapy, which helps children improve self-care and language, academic and social skills.
Rogers said the more she learned about autism, the more she realized that keeping Levi safe would be a challenge.
“One of things that I came across was that children with autism tend to wander off and that they are attracted to water,” she said. “I wanted Levi to know how to swim. I can’t swim. If he fell in water, I couldn’t help him.”
Nearly half of children with autism will at some point try to wander from safety and about one-third of parents of a child with autism reported a “close call” with drowning, according to the National Autism Association.
Children with autism do not always see water as a danger, one study found.
Rogers was determined that Levi would know how to swim.
IN THE POOL
Tyra, an aquatics instructor, teaches children, some as young as infancy, how to swim, and leads aquatics fitness classes for adults.
She has been working with Levi for about six months. He is one of the first children with autism and ADHD she has taught.
“When I first met Levi, he was a bit wild,” she said. “He has mellowed out.”
Her first goal was to make sure that if Levi ever fell into a pool or a pond, he would know what to do.
She quickly discovered that Levi loved the water and was a natural swimmer.
During this lesson, she helps Levi practice floating on his back. It requires Levi to relax as he stays afloat with his face sticking out of the water.
Tyra encourages Levi to swim the length of the pool. Wearing blue-rimmed goggles, he puts his face into the water and uses his arms to propel himself forward.
She brings a big multicolored beach ball into the pool and has Levi bat it back to her. Levi keeps his eye on the ball and then, as it approaches, sends it flying to Tyra.
After just a few sessions, Tyra said that Levi was doing better at listening and following instructions and that he was becoming much more confident.
Her challenge is keeping Levi focused.
“And that affects the way I talk to him and work with him,” she said. “I’ll say, ‘Come on, Levi, let’s race.’”
She said she makes sure that each lesson is a positive experience.
“I tell Levi, ‘Look at me. I’m so proud of you.’”
Ever since Levi was a baby, he has been moving practically nonstop.
“Levi has so much energy and you have to find a way to get it out that is productive,” his mother said.
She and her husband put Levi in group sports, but he didn’t always follow instructions and he had trouble working with others as a team. Rogers said crowds and cheering sometimes disturbed him.
Swimming proved to be a perfect outlet for Levi to let out his energy and stay calm, Rogers said.
According to the Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation, swimming can help an autistic child improve speech, coordination, social skills, self-esteem and cognitive processing. Because water is a soothing environment and swimming involves gentle and repetitive motions, it has a calming effect on those with autism.
“The benefits from (swimming) are just amazing and are great therapy for a child with autism,” according to information from the foundation.
Rogers said she doesn’t know the science behind why swimming helps Levi, she just knows it does.
“Swimming is something that he always looks forward to,” she said. “For him it is a joyful time.”
Because of the progress Levi is making in and out of the pool, Rogers said she and her husband are more optimistic than ever about what he will be able to accomplish.
She said she will bring Levi to the pool as long as he wants to keep swimming.
“Swimming has become an invaluable tool in his autism-ADHD journey,” she said.