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How Aquatic Therapy Benefits Children with Exceptional Needs

The aquatic therapy program at Reach for the Top is a sensory-enriched approach to Occupational, Physical, and Speech therapies, that focuses on using the properties of the water, to provide input to the brain and body through play.

What does aquatic therapy consist of?

As the name indicates, aquatic therapy consists of exercises and activities performed in the water, typically in temperature-controlled swimming pools. For children and families receiving care at Reach, the aquatic therapy program takes place at a local pool in the Dover, NH, area every Wednesday from 1 to 4 pm, in 45-minute-long sessions.

The partnership with this local hotel started in September 2022 and the families participating in this program have responded positively. Many parents are amazed at how much fun their children are having as they work hard on challenging skills that they often have more difficulty participating in on land. Robyn Thomas, who started the aquatic therapy program at Reach and is its current Lead and Clinical Supervisor, highlights that this program is designed to use each child’s current swimming ability, so that aquatic therapists can help children accomplish their goals by following the child’s lead, which is a philosophy that Reach highly values. This quieter time at the pool also provides a safe and motivating environment for children to learn and gain new skills through play, which is another one of the distinctive aspects of Reach’s family-centered approach.

Katie McGrath, one of the therapists in the aquatic program, agrees that this is one of the organization’s most popular programs: “Sometimes the biggest challenge is getting them out of the pool, as for some children, aquatic therapy almost makes them feel like they’re on vacation!”

What conditions can be treated with aquatic therapy?

There are many physical, neurological, cognitive, and sensory conditions that benefit from aquatic therapy programs such as arthritis, balance disorders, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit disorder, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, developmental delays, cognitive disorders, scoliosis, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, tendonitis, and joint pain, among others.

At Reach, the aquatic therapy program is focused on children with exceptional needs who may struggle with emotional regulation, decreased strength, endurance, and/or balance, high/low muscle tone, delays in motor milestones, anxiety, sensory stimulation issues, and speech and language development. In a child-led model of therapy as play, patients of the aquatics program can use water to build up skills in a fluid environment to help them gain strength, independence, and confidence to participate in life’s activities.

What are the benefits of aquatic therapy?

Aquatic therapy has numerous benefits for children who have sensory processing and self-regulation challenges as water creates a unique, therapeutic environment by providing gentle and consistent pressure throughout the entire body. This creates a very calming effect for many children that tend to seek this out on land in large amounts (i.e., constantly squeezing themselves into a tight space, wrapping up in a heavy blanket, or wearing heavy/compressive clothing materials), increases attention span, and improves body-spatial awareness as this input allows children to be able to better “feel” where they are in space.

Furthermore, the weightless feeling gained from submerging the body into the water helps children develop and enhance their social-emotional skills because it allows children to feel lighter, which makes it easier for them to move in the water. This decreases anxiety, reduces impulsive tendencies, improves mood, and gives children more confidence to explore new ways to move their bodies that they might not be motivated to try on land.

Playing in the water is also very fun and motivating. One unique benefit of the location of Reach’s aquatic therapy program is that the majority of the other children in the water are also participating in aquatic therapy, which creates many opportunities for small social groups of 2 children with their occupational and speech aquatic-trained therapists to form during each session.

Moreover, aquatic therapy is also very beneficial for children participating in physical therapy. Children with low/high muscle tone, decreased endurance/strengthening, acute and chronic pain, motor planning/coordination challenges, and other physical conditions can use the low resistance that the water provides to enhance mobility, decrease pain, increase joint support, improve coordination, promote muscle strengthening, endurance, and enhance breath control, which is very important in speech therapy too. The aquatic therapy program at Reach is, like all the other therapeutic programs offered by the organization, child-led and respectful of each child’s skills and comfort level. For Robyn Thomas, this is what allows for every session to be different and to involve a wide range of activities:

“Typically, we play games, use toys, or do pretend play. One very popular activity that many of our younger children enjoy is scooping and dumping, while diving games are often played with many of our older children as examples. For kids that are more comfortable in the water, they often challenge themselves by creating multistep, underwater obstacle courses for more complex play. While at other times, these kids prefer to play basketball and might invite another child to join in with them. And we also offer poolside activities such as building water marble mazes on a wall for the kids who don’t know how to swim or who aren’t yet comfortable enough to go in the water. No matter what the swimming ability of the child is, there is always something fun for them to explore.”

For therapist Katie McGrath, aquatic therapy allows the children and the therapist to work in unique ways: “We work with a lot of kids that have difficulty with body awareness, and in the water, you get a lot of feedback every time you move. So, this is a fun way to learn and it can’t really be replicated in the clinic environment.”

How to become an aquatic therapist?

All of the therapists in Reach’s aquatic therapy program are required to obtain a specified number of certificate hours in aquatic therapy best practices, while also having the opportunity to expand that training through additional continuing education opportunities and/or mentorship. And as Reach employees are encouraged to pursue their passions, the organization also provides additional support to help therapists fulfill the training requirements for areas of interest. Robyn Thomas, who started the program, saw the Aquatic therapy program as an opportunity to share her passions as an occupational therapist, swimmer, and former lifeguard:

“When the opportunity to start a new program at Reach came up, I was eager and excited to volunteer. I have over 11 years of experience as a competitive swimmer, and swimming has always given me so much joy in my life. Even at a very early age before I started competing, I was always eager to find a pool to swim in. I just loved the feeling of swimming underwater because it is fun, gave me confidence, and made me feel invincible because I taught myself to do unique things like: doing ten backwards somersaults in slow motion, or balancing while walking underwater in a handstand position without my hands ever touching the bottom of the pool. I wanted to share this excitement and passion with the families I provide OT services to at Reach, so that each child can experience this same type of joy and confidence while working on their therapeutic goals in a fun and motivating way.”

Whereas Katie McGrath, who joined Reach last year as a newly graduated occupational therapist, sought training in aquatic therapy before starting this new position, which helped her be more comfortable in the water.

Find your dream therapy job at Reach for the Top NH

As the Aquatic therapy program and other specialty programs at Reach expand, so does the need to onboard more therapists to serve more families in the Seacoast. Currently, with a staff of almost 15, Reach is looking for more physical therapists and speech therapists to join the team. Additionally, a new student coordinator position has been added as an opportunity for any Occupational, Physical, or Speech Therapist to become a junior leadership member of the Reach team as the organization’s student program continues to expand.

With hiring as one of the top priorities for 2023, the organization has growth opportunities for more experienced professionals, as well as opportunities for new therapists. If you’re interested in working as a therapist, or know someone who might be, visit the vacancies below:

Physical Therapy: https://www.indeed.com/viewjob?jk=ae6841a29ff9ee0d

Speech Therapy: https://www.indeed.com/viewjob?jk=0b124c75cac3c060

StudentCoordinator: https://www.indeed.com/viewjob?jk=a5f2b249b6da41c8

Reach for the Top NH is a non-profit organization and the only family-centered clinic in the Dover, NH, area offering interdisciplinary trauma-informed and neurodiverse-affirming therapies.