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It has taken months of trust, and teamwork, and patience, but 17-year-old Autumn Hawkins of Atlanta’s Grant Park neighborhood and her YMCA swim instructor Beth Costello are taking the plunge. 

“It feels well in the water,” Hawkins says. “I feel, happy sometimes.” 

Because the water is where Hawkins, who is on the autism spectrum, wants to be. 

“Autumn just brings joy to everyone that she comes in contact with,” Costello says. “She loves swimming. She loves the pool.” 

But swimming, or even being in the water, was not always this easy.   

Back in 2023, when Hawkins started coming to adaptive swimming lessons at the Decatur Family YMCA, getting into the pool was challenging. 

“I was afraid of the water,” she says. 

Swimming with special needs

She started swim lessons in preschool, but Hawkins’ mother, Erica Hawkins, says being a neurodivergent kid in a loud, crowded pool triggered intense anxiety. 

“So, that anxiety transferred over into vacations as well,” Hawkins says. “So, what we would see is just her kind of, like, a fight or flight thing, when it was time for us to get into the water.” 

By age 4, Autumn Hawkins had quit traditional swim lessons and, soon after, her mother says, she was reluctant to get in the water at all. 

“Our family, we swim a lot,” Erica Hawkins says. “We visit the beaches a lot. So, it really had an impact on our life when she was unable to, you know, take part in those family activities. She would just sit on the side of the pool. It was almost heartbreaking.” 

About a year ago, the Hawkins family found adaptive swim lessons at the Decatur Family YMCA and decided to try again. 

Beth Costello helped develop the individual and small group classes designed for children and young adults with special needs. 

Some of Hawkins’ classmates are on the spectrum, others are living with Down syndrome. 

The lessons are free, thanks to a grant from Gas South, and Costello says learning to swim is critical for her students. 

“It’s a life-or-death sport,” Costello says. “I mean, if they don’t know how to swim, if they don’t know how to protect themselves in the water, it could be deadly.” 

Austism and drowning

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders are often drawn to water and may not be aware of the dangers it can pose. 

The American Red Cross says children with autism are 160 times more likely to experience drowning or near-drowning than their typically developing peers. 

So, Costello and Hawkins began their lessons by focusing on how to be safe in the water. 

“A lot of the kids are terrified of the water,” Costello says. “And that’s the hardest part, is getting over that fear. But we just slowly work with them and get them acclimated to the water, and understanding how the water moves, how we make it move.” 

Once Autumn could tread water, they moved on to mastering the different swimming strokes. 

“I like to do backstroke, and I used to swim on my back, too, and I used to kick my feet,” she smiles. 

“It’s been nothing short of amazing,” Erica Hawkins says. 

A mother and daughter stand on the edge of a YMCA pool. The daugther, who is 17, is wearing a bathing suit and cap and giving a thumbs up sign.

Erika and Autumn Hawkins at the Decatur Family YMCA.

Because the Hawkins have watched as Autumn’s confidence and love of the water has come back to her. 

Her father and two younger brothers often come to watch her swim. 

“To bring her here and have her to pick back up on those skills, to see her build, and how fast she is in the water, it’s just been a beautiful thing to watch,” Erica Hawkins says. 

And Autumn Hawkins’ swim lessons have evolved into swim practice, because she is now in training. 

“I’m going to be in the Special Olympics soon,” she says. “I’ve gotta make sure I take my time and get in shape.” 

After more than a decade away from the water, Autumn Hawkins is back where she belongs. 

She is proud of how far she has come. 

“I can do anything I put my mind to,” Hawkins says.  

The YMCA of Metro Atlanta offers adaptive swim lessons at facilities across North Georgia. 

For more information on classes, visit https://ymcaatlanta.org/activity-finder 

Do you think you may suffer from Anxiety and live in Florida, California or New York?

If so, please consider scheduling a proper virtual online ADHD and Anxiety diagnosis with one of our physicians. Although we have an online ADHD and Anxiety diagnosis tool, a proper diagnosis from a Board-Certified Medical Doctor will help you know for sure. If appropriate, a customized treatment program will be recommended at the conclusion of that initial visit.

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