Respecting the Stim, Post #3: How Water Stim Led to Swim

With the exception of when Beth was a newborn and she screamed bloody murder at bath time, which resulted in sponge baths for 4 months, Beth has always loved water. Between ages 3-4, Beth’s “obsession” and stim (1) with water seemed to get in the way of nearly all play activities and outings. But over the past 1.5 years, I stopped thinking of water as Beth’s “obsession” and now I think of it as her love and, in the case of swimming, even a gift. In this post I share with you the ups and downs of Beth’s water story. And, as with all the posts in this series, fighting the stim was a fruitless effort, and true progress occurred when we learned to live with her water stim and go with the flow.

Early Love of Water

Beth’s love of water started with swimming classes at 9 months old. She clearly loved the water more than the other babies. “She is so happy in the water! ” the teachers and other parents would say. Pretty soon her love of water expanded into other areas, but at that time water was not a dominant interest or obviously stim-like. It was just fun.

Infant Swim Class

Swim Class


Exploring Fountains (Longwood Gardens)


Enjoying the Rain (Longwood Gardens)

First Water Stims & Preoccupations

Although I did not realize it at the time, Beth’s first water stim started at about 2.5 years old with a water table cup (“Blue Cup” as she called it). She would fill Blue Cup with water and run a stream of water over her fingers over and over.  When Beth went to the first preschool, before we received the autism diagnosis and when she was flipping out all the time while there, I brought in Blue Cup and told the teacher it might help her calm down. Let’s just say Beth spent a lot of time running water over her fingers with her Blue Cup at the sink in the preschool room while the other kids were napping on the floor.

Water Table

Water Table with Blue Cup


Beth and her Blue Cup (Running the Stream of Water on Her Fingers)

We let Beth be Beth back then, so we gave Beth time to play with her Blue Cup at home and went to various locations with water because she seemed so happy in and around water.

The Shore

The New Jersey Shore

Lake Nockamixon

Lake Nockamixon

Then the intensive therapy sessions started from age 3-4. The therapists recommended reducing time with Blue Cup, minimizing stimming, and teaching Beth that she could do other things with water. For example, to keep Beth from walking in the creek at every visit (which was sometimes a problem when the creek was very dirty or when it was cold), we tried replacing getting in the water with throwing heavy rocks into the water.  The idea was the “heavy work” of throwing the rocks and the visual of watching the rocks going in might be a sensory activity that would replace her desire to go in the water. She was mildly amused by throwing rocks for a awhile, but just like all other “replacement” attempts, she went back to craving direct contact with the water. As for attempts to make water functional (watering plants, getting herself a drink, turning on the hose to play with it, etc.), that took another 1-2 years to develop, and seemed to only occur after her need for contact with water calmed somewhat and her joint attention and motor planning improved.

Throwing a Big Rock Into a Her Favorite Water Hole

Rock Throwing at a Favorite Water Hole

After the failed attempts to get Beth to do other things with water, we let Beth get in water and play with it as much as possible again. I even got a therapist to go in the pool with Beth and do some language work. But soon we discovered that we had a bigger problem than Beth wanting to be in the water all the time.

Water Play Sabotaged By Oral Issues

The mouthing issues had ramped up from ages 3-4. As a result, Beth started to swipe water from dirty streams and drink from garden fountains, so we had to limit those activities. My new hope when we quit intensive therapy at around age 4 was that we could swim a lot and it would reduce her desire to drink undrinkable water wherever we went, and then we could do more activities near streams and with fountains again. Also, I hoped to do Floortime sessions in the swimming pool and work on language and interaction. But when we started swimming often, I realized she sneakily drank so much pool water that she became ill with osmotic diarrhea due to the salts in the pool. As soon as the water hit her mouth she would let it flow or drain in because it was sensory heaven to her. There were serious health risks, and all attempts to stop her or replace the behavior failed and often led to tantrums. So, at that point, all water play and outings where she had access to undrinkable water had to be limited. It was very sad that the sensory thing she craved and needed most was being sabotaged by another part of her autism.

The Start of the Water Mouthing Issues

The Start of the Water Mouthing Issues

Going With the Flow

We halted swimming for an entire year in hopes that her pool drinking would decrease with time.  We made do the best we could with a garden hose and sprinkler at home.

Sprinkler Play

Sprinkler Play

At this point, outings were a problem, because she would tantrum for water sources she could not access (duck ponds, pools, etc.) and she would try to drink from dirty water sources at every opportunity. I did my best to choose activities that centered around Beth’s water interest. It made sense in my head that the aquarium should be the ideal place for Beth, because she loved water so much, but she seemed miserable. Then Beth finally got enough language to say “Go in the water!” on an aquarium outing and it hit me. It was like the “Water, water every where” in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner Poem. Putting Beth around tons of water that she cannot get into is like surrounding a man dying of thirst with water he cannot drink. It is torture for her. Especially since we had stopped swimming and she was probably thinking about how much she missed swimming every time she saw a pool or tank of water! It seems obvious in retrospect, but I until that point I didn’t realize how much Beth needed to have contact with water. Over time, surviving trips to places with inaccessible water (tanks, ponds, etc.) was possible with a lot of edible rewards and short repeated visits.

Beth at the Aquarium

Beth Wants to “Go in the Water”(Even Shark-Infested Water)

At this point I started to expand my thinking and observe Beth very carefully. One day while blocking Beth from drinking from a dirty water source, she leaned her head down and did the head dunk thing. And I said, “Yes!  Dunk your head!” At least we could use the head dunk move for places with garden fountains and it was much safer than drinking the dirty water. Over time I have figured out ways to use water sources during an outing as a break and reward (letting her play in misters, head dunk in drinking fountains, head dunk in garden fountains, playing with hoses at friend’s houses, playing in the rain, etc).  Now I carry 2 extra outfits and an extra pair of shoes so that she can get wet if an opportunity presents itself. Sure we get some stares, but I know this is only temporary. Blue Cup mentioned above was a thing of the past this summer, so one day we will visit a place without Beth dunking her head. For now we just need to go with the flow.

Head in Fountain

Morris Arboretum Fountain Head Dunk

Morris Arboretum

Morris Arboretum Stream Head Dunk

Elmwood Zoo Mister

Playing in the Mist at Elmwood Zoo

Back in the Water

At the beginning of this summer (2013), it had been almost a year since we stopped letting Beth swim due to excessive drinking of pool water. We decided to give swimming a try again. It was much better, but we still found ourselves telling her over and over “spit it out” and worrying about her pool water intake. About this time we discovered that if we gave Beth juice half way through swimming and kept her well-hydrated she drank a minimal amount of pool water.  Drinking pool water was still a worry, but much less so.

In July we went on 3-week vacation to my husband’s parent’s house near Traverse City, Michigan.  Their house is right on Lake Michigan, so we thought it would be perfect for Beth.  Although the water was a bit chilly, we thought she would like to walk around in it and dunk her head.  But the first 4 days there were very, very difficult. Beth regressed and bit both me and my husband, had sleep problems more nights in a row than usual, and was very difficult to reason with. She liked walking in the waters of Lake Michigan okay, but something was bothering her. Thankfully, the relatives “up north” had other water-related activities for us to try.

The 4 person jet ski and power boat were winners. She loved going fast.  We sandwiched Beth between two adults to keep her safe on the jet ski. In the boat I had to hold onto her life jacket to keep her from falling overboard, because she loved to lean over the edge and touch the water splashing off the side of the boat.

Beth, Ready to Jet Ski

Beth, Ready to Jet Ski

Beth Enjoying Motor Boating on Torch Lake, Michigan

Beth Enjoying Motor Boating on Torch Lake, Michigan

Feeling the Water

Feeling the Water While Boating

Jet skiing and boating were fun, but the true turning point came when a relative gave us guest passes to a resort so we could use the swimming pool. After swimming regularly again, Beth was pretty much back to herself. I believe Beth’s initial upset was because of the “water, water everywhere” concept again. Looking at all the water in Lake Michigan, but not being able to swim in it because it was too cold, was torture for her!

A Stim Turns to Swim

One day during the vacation in Michigan,  I was playing with Beth in the resort pool and noticed she loved when I went under water.  I would fall into the water over and over expressively and she smiled widely. Then, she just did it…went under the water all on her own. Pretty soon she was going under water over and over and couldn’t get enough of it. Smashing herself into the water was a sensory activity that was stim-like, with a major upside that she did not swallow water when she was underneath! We had an issue with the water burning her eyes, but she was so motivated to go underwater she let me put a swim mask on her (note it is a swim mask without the nose block: Here is a video of Beth during these first days of underwater exploration, with Grandpa doing the “torpedo kid” push.

Over time she has taught herself to swim underwater and can come up for air in between strokes.  I am looking around at other kids who are 5 and she is often the only child her age able to swim underwater. People say, “look at her go,” “wow, she can really swim,” and to their kids, “honey, do that, swim like that little girl.” And I just smile and think, if only they knew how we got here.


(1) For a definition of stim and other post in this series, see: and


One thought on “Respecting the Stim, Post #3: How Water Stim Led to Swim

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s