BALTIMORE – There are few things Michael Birkelien will bug his mother Jennifer about. But when Thursdays roll around, the 10-year-old diagnosed with autism buzzes around the family’s home outside Baltimore.

“He will ask, ‘Swimming Thursday?'” Jennifer Birkelien said. “It’s definitely something he looks forward to, and he communicates that with me.”

Michael Birkelien’s anticipation stems from his participation in Sensory Swim, a program that instructs children with special needs on how to swim. Founded and run by husband and wife Andrew and Mary Ross, Sensory Swim operates out of five Kids First Swim School locations.

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The program teaches swimming to children living with a variety of disabilities, but Mary Ross said many of the 40 swimmers currently enrolled are on the spectrum.

“I was working in a sensory motor gym with kids doing gymnastics and motor skills, and there was a need out there,” she said. “People were coming up to us and asking, ‘Do you know anyone who teaches swimming or can teach my child?’ A lot of swim schools couldn’t grasp how to teach autistic kids how to swim. They just didn’t understand, they got frustrated, and the kids would lash out. So we just started doing it, and the need kept growing and growing. We felt it was our calling.”

Mary Ross, 52, said many children with autism tend to wander away from their families and homes and are drawn to water, which can lead to severe injury or even death. Sensory Swim seeks to introduce children to water and teach them how to survive.

Andrew Ross, 30, said he and his wife will take – and in some cases carry – students into the pool. Sometimes the children resist and lash out with punches and scratches, but eventually they calm down and begin to enjoy being in the water.

“They’re just insecure or unsure,” said Andrew Ross, a former crisis intervention specialist for the state. “So if you just wrap them up in your arms and you don’t play into that fear or address it, it tends to go away a lot quicker.”

Michelle Feser and her 19-year-old son Stephen have known the Ross couple for more than 12 years, but began taking part in Sensory Swim last June because Stephen was terrified of water. Over that span, Stephen learned to float, and just last month he put his head underwater for the first time.

“They are so incredibly positive,” Michelle Feser said of Andrew and Mary Ross. “It’s their approach that these kids can learn anything with time and encouragement. It’s huge because special needs kids need skills in the water.”

Since opening 10 years ago with four students, Sensory Swim has instructed more than 4,000 students, according to Andrew Ross. One family from Dubai, while visiting relatives in New Jersey, made the weekly trip to Maryland for their son to learn.

Tiernan O’Meara, an 8-year-old who is visually impaired, has been attending Sensory Swim for the past year. In addition to swimming from one side of the pool to the other, he can now sink to the bottom and push himself back to the surface.

His mother, Julie, said Tiernan has also gotten stronger and no longer needs a walker or stroller to navigate the hallways of the Maryland School for the Blind, where he is a second-grader.

“Spending time in the water has been good for him,” Julie O’Meara said.

Andrew Ross said the positive feedback from parents has been encouraging.

“It’s adrenaline,” he said. “We’re just lucky to be doing what we do. The fact that the kids have responded so well, sometimes I feel like they’re making us look like better teachers than we are.”

Mary Ross said the greatest reward she can receive is the knowledge that her students no longer fear water.

“It puts my mind at ease knowing that if they went to a pool party and fell in, they could get to the side and not only survive but enjoy themselves,” she said. “That is a blessing in itself.”

© 2016 The Baltimore Sun
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