Different strokes for different folks
- Published: 4 Feb 2010 at 04.00
- Online news:
A swimming instructor in Chiang Mai knows just how helpful swimming coaching can be for helping disabled and special needs children.
Natthasak Thaw-Udom, also known as Khru Phayu (teacher Phayu) feels he himself suffered from developmental problems as a child.
``I knew I was different because I had a tendency to forget my keys 5-7 times a day. I just couldn't remember where I placed them.
``I also loved to bite the tops off pens, even when it gave me a mouthful of ink. I'd walk into things and break things on a daily basis. I had so much energy that I found it hard to stay still.
``Yet I try to keep my life as normal as possible and have even managed to achieve a certain level of success in life.
``All of this was made possible because my father took me to swimming lessons when I was nine years old,'' says Natthasak, a 24-year-old swimming instructor who read Mass Communications at Chiang Mai University.
Natthasak called time on his competitive swimming career six years ago after competing in his last National Youth games competition at the age of 18.
He decided to become a swimming instructor.
It was during his second year in college that he met 8-year-old Chalermchon Nasun (Nong Phone), who was autistic. The meeting between teacher and student was to have a major impact on Natthasak, who as a result of their encounter became Chiang Mai's first swimming instructor for special needs children.
``I still remember my first teaching session. I almost gave up. Nong Phone didn't respond. All he did was run around the pool and scream. He never made eye contact, did not perform breathing exercises or follow instructions.
Deaf children warm up before learning to swim.
``But I looked upon it as a challenge. It was as if I was looking at myself when I was a child. I was probably similar to Nong Phone. I was determined to find a way to teach him to swim.
``Three years have passed and Nong Phone can swim using all four swimming strokes. His development has been exceptional when compared to when he first started,'' said Natthasak.
MEETING CHILDREN'S NEEDS
Before he met Nong Phone, Natthasak knew little about autism.
However after consulting therapists who worked with autistic children, he found suitable methods for teaching children with special needs.
``Most children with special needs have gone through various therapy sessions,'' says Natthasak, who consulted experts like Sureeporn Cheevapanich, a specialist at the Medical Techniques Department, Chiang Mai University.
``Parents who take their children [with special needs] to swimming lessons just want them to get exercise and be able to help themselves if they fall into water. Therapy is not their aim.
``However, when we teach swimming, it's critical to incorporate therapy into swimming instruction as well,'' he says.
He added that his swimming course emphasises having fun, creating trust and high safety standards because an autistic child is prone to seizures which represents a higher risk than teaching a normal child.
``Autistic children also harbour certain fears which differ from child to child.
``Some are scared of the water and refuse to enter the pool. Others simply refuse to learn.
``I have to be patient. I walk them around the pool several times, and slowly introduce them to the water. They learn to trust me. I hug them, engage in body contact.
``Some children still refuse body contact, won't meet my gaze, will not enter the pool, or allow themselves to be touched.
``I must find out what it is that they like. If we jump into the pool, it will be counter-productive, they will be even more scared and in the end they won't swim.
``Most children love playing with water. It is fun for them. I have to establish a bond of trust. It might take three days before they enter the pool. Thats' all right by me,'' said Natthasak.
HOW DOES SWIMMING HELP?
After three years of teaching autistic children, Natthasak discovered that most of them have problems talking. Verbal communication is not possible or may be slow.
Hence while in the pool, children are relaxed. As a child learns how to swim, he or she is practising certain movements that will stimulate development in other areas such as:
Practising the arm motion of the freestyle discipline will establish equilibrium in the left and right portions of a child's brain.
Blowing air out of your mouth. strengthens the small muscles around it.
Learning how to follow instructions will increase a child's concentration level.
The first step is to teach them to stay afloat. The children will have to push out with their legs, use their hands to steady themselves, the torso and body has to be straight. Air-filled water wings, which help them stay afloat, are allowed initially. The air is gradually let out from the water wings until they can stay afloat by themselves.
``Some children immediately grasp the concept of floating but still insist on using water wings although they don't have any air in them. It's just a confidence builder.''
The important thing is that they get to exercise a lot while learning how to float. The next phase is to learn the star-fish pose by stretching out the arms and legs to stay afloat. Then the needle-fish pose teaches them to jump into the water towards the swimming instructor from the edge of the pool,
``The next phase is to learn the freestyle discipline and breathing exercises. Throughout this process I will never tell my students that they have to learn how to swim. Our main concern is for them to have fun,'' said Natthasak.
TEACHING THE DEAF AND DISABLED
After achieving a considerable level of success in teaching autistic children, Natthasak realised he had developed an interest in helping children with special needs.
For his early lessons, he chose 40 deaf children from Sodsueksa School, and provided on-site swimming lessons for physically disabled children from Srisangwan School in Chiang Mai.
A physical therapist is usually on hand when he is teaching disabled children, some of whom have missing limbs.
``As I teach them, I learn new techniques which I can also apply to my curriculum for autistic children,'' says Natthasak.
``Teaching these children is not too difficult, because we can communicate normally.''
Practice strokes are tailored to suit each student's physical ability. Floating is again taught first.
Natthasak says teaching deaf children was a special challenge, as most are mute and cannot communicate by spoken word. Yet it was another obstacle he was determined to conquer.
``I was interested to teach deaf children how to swim because deaf children are usually mute.
``When they find themselves in trouble in the water, they are helpless and cannot cry for help.
``That's why I want them to learn how to swim or at least stay afloat in the water.''
Deaf children who are mute must be taught in sign language.
Natthasak therefore learned sign language, using CDs. He practised with deaf street vendors at weekends. In exchange for their help, he helped them to sell their wares.
``We had as many as 40 children but not a single word was spoken, as we used sign language. And these children paid attention.''
He's now proficient in sign language and plans to start a second swimming course for deaf and mute children in June.
``I've asked 4-5 deaf and mute students who took my first course, to serve as my paid assistants.''
``I am delighted whenever parents tell me their child has developed and improved.
``If I compare myself to other swimming instructors, I am probably less well-off dhfinancially because I rely mainly on donations.
``My special students require a longer period to learn and I have to be patient. But once they are starting to master the basics or show improvement, I feel so encouraged.
``Swimming is no different from art or music, which can be used to help children in therapeutic ways.
``It's just that swimming is my forte. I intend to get as much potential out of it as I can, which is why I have enrolled in a master's degree programme in special education.
``This will allow me to take my teaching techniques to a higher level,'' he says.
A TALK WITH NONG PHONE'S MUM
- Nipa Nasun, mother of Nong Phone, Natthasak's first swimming student in Chiang Mai, says swimming helped her son in ways which she never thought possible.
Teaching Nong Phone to stay afloat.
Therapists and child psychiatrists had recommended that she take her child for swimming lessons to improve his physical development.
Nipa learned that her son was autistic when he was aged one.
She tried just about every kind of treatment and therapy she could find, but nothing seemed to work.
Signs of improvement were few, and even as he celebrated his eighth birthday, Nong Phone rarely spoke.
``Natthasak is so patient. At their first encounter at the pool, Nong Phone was running around the pool, screaming at the top of his lungs.
``Natthasak did not realise that this was such a big moment for me and my husband. We tried everything with no results or minimal success. Our son wouldn't reply to our questions, listen or establish eye contact. But Natthasak changed all that. Now our son answers our questions. We are so happy and recommend him to other parents,'' said Nipa.
Nipa still takes her son for swimming lessons and is one of Natthasak's sponsors.
She recently donated 500,000 baht so Natthasak can rent a pool for the next three years so students with special needs can learn under his instruction.
``I want to give something back in return for all the good he has done for my son.
``Some swimming pools will not allow autistic children to enter for safety reasons.
``It is true that autistic children require extra care. But I know how much swimming can help these children.
``Natthasak is a determined individual, which is why I want to give him this opportunity,'' says Nipa.