Little Isla Robarts will be three in two weeks’ time. Advanced beyond her young years, she could sing nursery rhymes with her parents and recognise colours by the age of one. Isla has Asperger’s – a form of autism.
“Asperger’s means Isla’s brain processes sensory information differently to you or I. Noise, light and touch can cause difficulties for her,” explains mum, Nadine. “She’s extremely advanced for her age – it’s one reason we ended up getting an early diagnosis. A health visitor picked up on it on a routine visit and it went from there.”
Like most autistic children, Isla can find the world a confusing and overwhelming place, often struggling or becoming distressed in social situations. But there’s one thing that Isla not only loves to do, she’s also very good at. And it might just surprise you…
Isla loves to swim! She started when she was just 8 weeks old at her local Water Babies class in Aylesbury. And she’s been swimming ever since.
“We felt that water safety was a really important thing to learn so both Isla and her brother, Jude, are Water Babies! My husband is a fantastic swimmer and very confident but I’m not. I get a bit fearful if I go underwater because I had an incident when I was young; I jumped in and couldn’t swim. I didn’t want the children to have any fear like me,” says Nadine.
Nadine and Oliver, both 35, live in the little village of Lillingstone Dayrell near Buckingham. Together with Isla and their two sons, eight-month-old Jude, and Charlie, 17. After receiving Isla’s diagnosis, the couple were worried she’d have to stop swimming lessons but as time progressed, they seemed to be one of the things that Isla enjoyed most. Now, weekly lessons form an intrinsic part of Isla’s routine and the families approach to helping her live with her condition.
“Like most people with autism, Isla loves routine and it’s a good way of her learning to interact with the teacher and other children her age. Getting her out and about is a big issue because of things like noise, traffic, people and new environments – all things we just take for granted. She wears ear defenders wherever we go to help block some things out. But she’s always keen to get to swimming class!” says Oliver.
Water Babies swimming teacher, Elaine Saunders, marvels at Isla’s determination, water skill and what a fab little lady she is! “Isla’s great in the pool; she can jump in, turn around and climb out and even swims independently quite confidently! She’s a pleasure to be around, it’s very rewarding to see her progress with the other children.”
Swimming lessons also make for some perfect daddy and daughter time! Oliver says he enjoys classes just as much as Isla though admits that seeing her in any discomfort is always difficult as a father: “Isla was so close to Nadine – this was an opportunity for me to have some special bonding time with her. Sometimes, towards the end of a lesson, touch can become painful for Isla so she might want to hold on to my arm rather than me holding her. It can be quite difficult for me to see her like that but her enjoyment of the classes wins out every time. It’s just our thing now!”
Nadine and Oliver are passionate about raising awareness around autism and feel that one of the best ways to do that locally is for people to meet Isla and realise that everyone is different in their own way: “It’s great for her to get out into the community and for people to meet her too. People becoming aware is a good thing - we end up chatting to parents and educating them because it’s still something that people don’t know much about.
Over 700,000 people in the UK have some form of autism. That’s one in every 100. The exact cause is still being investigated but research suggests that a combination of factors, genetic and environmental, may account for changes in brain development. Finding approaches that work are of course, unique to every family. But Nadine and Oliver encourage parents to try physical activity and weekly classes as part of a long-term lifestyle strategy.
“Whether you have autism or not swimming is a great thing to do. I would advise parents of autistic children to try it. Obviously, every child is different but I would give it a go if you can. It’s a really good experience for us. Isla absolutely loves it, it’s one of her favourite things to do.”