Since 1995, Nancy Hinchcliff has accompanied her son, Michael, to the Beaverton Swim Center. Now 27, Michael relishes his 30-minute swim lessons, every Tuesday and Thursday at 9:40 a.m.
“This is like a second family for Michael,” Nancy Hinchcliff said. “He just lives for Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s the most important thing in his life, except for family. It makes him feel really good about himself.”
Michael is autistic. It took him years just to put his face in the water, his mother says. Now he swims confidently, with minimal supervision from Program Coordinator Lori Leach, his Specialized Aquatics instructor for nearly 15 years.
Michael Hinchcliff is one of about 135 swimmers enrolled in Specialized Aquatics (formerly known as the Developmentally Disabled and Physically Limited aquatics program).
Pictured: Specialized Aquatics patron Michael Hinchcliff can confidently swim with only minimal supervision from instructor Lori Leach.
“Michael has sensory issues, but he’s been able to overcome them and enjoy the water,” Leach said. “The path is slow, it’s a series of small steps, but the result can be the same for him as for someone without learning challenges.”
Specialized Aquatics provides one-on-one instruction for any swimmer in need of extra attention because of physical limitations or learning disabilities. In-district participants receive 30 minutes of instruction for only $6. Enrollment in the program is at an all-time high.
“The district provides a subsidy that makes it viable for our guests,” said Sharron Patapoff, Beaverton Swim Center supervisor who has overseen the program for its entire 32-year existence. “If we charged what we charge for a private lesson, it would be hard to maintain the program.”
Patapoff started the program with eight participants at Aloha Swim Center in 1980. The program eventually followed her to Beaverton, after the pool was renovated in 1989.
She says Michael Hinchcliff is representative of the program’s changing demographic.
“I hadn’t heard the word autism when I started,” Patapoff said. “Now, we primarily see autistic children and adults with autism or Asperger’s. You don’t see nearly as many people with Down syndrome or as many physical limitations.”
The program is offered seven days a week. Some participants sign up for consecutive sessions to spend an hour in the water.
“Some come for exercise, some come to work on a better stroke, some are brought by their parents for safety,” Patapoff said. “It’s a great life exercise. We have numerous participants that swim laps and even 15-20 who have gone on to participate in high school swim programs.”
The program’s success can be attributed to many things – price, word of mouth, population growth, relationships with Beaverton School District and Special Olympics. The biggest reason, Patapoff said, may be the care and attention provided by the instructors.
“You can teach people a lot of things, but you can’t teach people to care,” she said. “The people that work for me sign up for those hours, they request those hours.” Some even volunteer their time to the program.
Leach says serving as a Specialized Aquatics instructor is “probably the best part of my job.”
It starts with establishing trust.
“When we started working together, Michael’s focus was Star Wars,” Leach remembers. “I would play the Star Wars soundtrack when we were swimming. It gave us something to talk about and relaxed him because it was familiar. He needed that connection to know I understood him.”
Michael has also benefited from consistency. Incredibly, he has received the large majority of his instruction from just two people – Leach and Jill Coyle.
“For someone like Michael, who is autistic but very high functioning, the consistency is really a good thing. He knows how Lori and Jill work, they know how he works,” Nancy Hinchcliff said. “I couldn’t ask for better people to be in the water with him. They stick to it, they’re kind-hearted.”
The program has given Michael – and countless other participants -- a lifelong skill. Michael refers to his swimming as “his hobby,” and tells his mom that when he stays out of the water too long, he “dries up like a fish.”
“They worked with him tirelessly, encouraged him, found different ways of teaching him what his body can do,” Nancy Hinchcliff said. “Sometimes the space around him can be overwhelming for him, but here he’s successful. I just can’t speak highly enough about the program. I’m so grateful for it.”
So, too, is Michael.
“It’s very nice to have someone show me what I should do, or how I should do it,” Michael Hinchcliff said. “It helps keep me in good shape and I really do enjoy doing it.”