High School Student Creates Swimming Club for Kids With Autism
Writer: Christy Heitger-Ewing
Tara Harmon was just four years old when she started swimming competitively. Though she savored every moment in the water, she recognized that her love was something not everyone could enjoy. Her uncle, for example, had a disability that kept him from learning how to swim. Even as a tot, this bothered her because it limited him whenever the family went on vacations where they were surrounded by water.
“I asked my grandma why my uncle couldn’t take lessons from somewhere and she said there were no organizations that offered such a thing,” Harmon says.
An idea took root as a kindergartener that came to fruition nearly a decade later when Harmon began researching what it took to create such an organization. She learned about a program called Youth Service America (YSA), a resource center that partners with organizations committed to increasing the quality and quantity of volunteer opportunities for young people, ages 5-25, to serve locally, nationally and globally.
Harmon applied for several grants to secure funding. She also talked to swimming pool directors at several area schools that enroll autistic students. All the planets aligned and in 2016, when Harmon was in seventh grade, she launched Swimming for All, a free swim clinic that teaches children with autism how to swim.
Harmon recruited 40 (roughly half) of the Zionsville High School Swim team to help run the program. Students were eager to help, especially when they learned that drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death for children with autism.
“This program has helped our son Luke engage with others in a safe and fun atmosphere,” says Maria Hodge. “The students that work with the kids are patient, and we can tell that they truly enjoy helping them.”
Currently, Swimming for All has 50 students, each of who take lessons, 10 at a time, on a rotating basis due to pool space and schedules.
“We always pair the kids one-on-one with an instructor, and they stick with that instructor through the duration of the lessons in order to build trust and rapport,” says Harmon, now 15 and a freshman at Zionsville High School.
The children, who range in age from 4-12 years, all have differing abilities when they enter the program, and all progress at different rates, which is fine. There is no finite beginning or ending to the lessons like there are with typical swim lessons.
“One of the main things we wanted to focus on was water safety and basic swimming skills,” says Harmon, noting that the lessons start in half a foot of water and move progressively from there to 4.5 feet deep.
“We start wherever the kid feels comfortable and move at whatever pace they choose,” Harmon adds. “We do bubbles, then move to kicking, then breathing. The other day we saw a boy go from barely kicking to jumping off the diving board and swimming across the pool.”
After each one-hour clinic, the program provides a meal so that the students and their teachers can sit down on dry land, break bread and get to know each other.
“Bonding with the kids is a huge part of growing trust, so the meal really helps with that,” Harmon says.
“Swimming for All is important to our family because it brings awareness to a danger for our autistic children,” Lilla says. “This is a growing population, so I’m thrilled to see more programs focused on [those with Autism].”
Though Harmon is currently focused on teaching children with autism, in the future she would like to expand the program to include kids with other disabilities as well as inner-city children who can’t afford the lessons, the gear (goggles, swimsuits), or, in some cases, even food.
“I want to provide them with healthy foods that they don’t have access to,” says Harmon, who plans to pursue a business degree in college as she continues to work with special needs students.