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Swimming With Autism: How One Instructor Makes a Difference  

For Aqua-Tots Swim Instructor Josef D’Angelo, helping children learn to swim is a particularly rewarding endeavor. As a beloved member of our Roswell, Georgia, school, Josef is known as a driven, friendly and humble team member, who also happens to be on the autism spectrum.  

Autism refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, autism impacts about 75 million individuals or about 1% of the worldwide population. Today in the U.S. alone, 1 in 44 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. 

For children with autism, learning skills—like swimming—can present a unique set of challenges. That’s why discovering the gifts and talents amongst our own team members is especially rewarding. We recently reached out to Josef to learn more about him, his passion for childhood water safety, and what it’s like living and swimming with autism. 

What do you believe is the most common misconception about individuals living with autism?  

The most common misconception about individuals with autism is that people think we aren’t smart or aware of what they are trying to tell us. No matter what level of the spectrum we are on, people with autism hear what is being said, and the more that we grow, the more we understand what goes on around us. 

When did you start at Aqua-Tots, and what made you interested in joining the team?  

I started at Aqua-Tots in May 2021. I applied for the front desk position when I first heard about the company, but I also applied for the swim instructor position, maybe because I used to swim in high school.  

What do you do outside of work for fun?  

For fun, I enjoy making music, songwriting, and taking whatever sounds I can find and making them sound good! I also love reading books pertaining to my faith. If I’m not doing those two things, I’m hanging out with my friends from church. 

How does living with autism contribute to who you are today?  

As an adult, especially now as I teach kids on the spectrum, I understand a little more how parents feel when they see their children advancing in their swimming and communication skills. My mom is a big hero in my life. She never gave up on her hopes of me being able to say words, and I strive hard to help parents receive the same feeling of accomplishment in their children. The longer I live on this earth, the more grateful I am to conquer things people said I would never achieve because of autism.  

What is your favorite thing about Aqua-Tots?  

The people I work with. As a guy who is new to Atlanta, I’ve never been a part of a team that strives to remain unified until I started working here. Every job has its stressful points, and I can honestly say this team helps me be better.  

What would you say to parents who are looking into the benefits of swim lessons for autism? 

I would say swimming gives your child a chance to exercise coordination. Exercise promotes balance in the body, especially because they’re using every muscle. 

What is a challenging aspect about teaching children on the spectrum about water safety?  

I’ve noticed that some kids communicate by biting and pinching. These are things that you would normally think are disrespectful, but for kids on the spectrum, they’re not trying to be mean. That’s just what they know. 

What is a rewarding aspect about teaching children on the spectrum about water safety?  

You get to see parents—who are experiencing emotions that most wouldn’t understand—smile when hearing that swim lessons are working. I’ve learned that the best way to stir faith in these children and parents is to keep showing up. Some days that’s all I know how to do outside of the curriculum, and EVERY child has different needs from others. It’s a great job to be quick to listen and slow to speak. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share about swimming with autism? 

To anybody who is going through a similar struggle, or somebody with a relative with a similar struggle, always remember to make every decision with them and for them out of LOVE. Love keeps them out of trouble. It helps paint a picture of a renewed heart for them. It costs little to love. It can be hard at times, but love will give you strength!  

At Aqua-Tots, we’re all about propelling life, both in the water and in life, and we’re proud to have team members like Josef who have come alongside our mission to save lives, one swim lesson at a time. If you know a child who would benefit from our Students Needing Adaptive Programming (S.N.A.P.) classes with private lessons tailored to your child’s needs, please reach out to your neighborhood Aqua-Tots Swim School to learn more.