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Autism – Finding a Safe Bubble During Lockdown



Author By Evelyn Keyes, BSc | Edited and additional materials by Gregory James Keyes, JP, PhD












Lockdown: What does it mean for us?

It is extremely hard to explain. Everyone has another story to tell about lockdown during COVID-19, especially as many different states and provinces have different restrictions.  Yet, we all have one thing in common and that’s the fact that things are certainly challenging at this moment of history.

We can discuss the situation between each other and via social media, etc. and, to an extent, understand what is going on in the world in regard to the pandemic that has got us all in its grip in one way or another. Most of us can tell others how we feel, and what we expect or don’t expect.  But how is the situation for someone who has autism, especially in the lower functioning domains?

Many people with autism live in a bubble most of the time or in some cases all the time. Their sensory needs need looking after, and their daily routines are their lifelines. If any of these lifelines are taken away or seriously hindered, as has been happening in this 2020 lockdown, life can become extremely difficult.

Depression and anxiety surface as everything they know goes out the window.  Many people don’t realize that in children with autism, 22-28% suffer from depression in normal life – without the lockdown situation coming into the equation.  As these individuals become teenagers and adults, these numbers grow to between 58-72%.  Even more astounding is the figures for anxiety in autism, which hits up to 84%, again not taking into consideration things such as the pandemic and lockdown.

People with autism often do not understand when things change, so explanations about the world and what is happening often is not comprehended unless you know how to reach into their world. Weeks or even months of indoor engagement can be devastating for someone with autism.

It is a well-known fact that most people on the autism spectrum are attracted to, and love, the water. Unfortunately, this the reason for the staggering figure that those on the spectrum are 160 times more likely to drown than those who are not. This is why it is so important for them to be introduced to the aquatic domain as young as possible to teach them how to survive, learn to swim, and enjoy this wonderful  source of wellness enrichment.

In the situations where lockdown has taken away time in the pool, perhaps one of the most enjoyable events that the individuals look forward to, it obvious that levels of anxiety and depression could increase. Thus, we want to find ways to compensate and alleviate these concerns.

What can we do to assist in this difficult time?

In the years I have dealt with special populations, like individuals with autism, I have always seen that going back to basics is the best. Try to implement the normal daily routines as much as possible.

  • Make photo books about the routines outdoors, such as going to the park, taking swimming lessons, going to school, or playing with friends.
  • Read books with plenty of pictures.
  • Tell stories and use your imagination but add into the stories things you know will appeal to the listener.  Perhaps include colors they like and other sensory things that appeal to them.
  • Play music – especially of their favorite music. Songs that encourage singing, clapping or moving certainly helps.
  • Cook a favorite dish so the smells go through the house.
  • A soft animal or toy can come in handy to touch when things get difficult.
  • Most of all, please include FUN exercises. 


Sensory needs are more important than ever, due to confinement within a defined domain.  Stimulation to release endorphins is needed by these individuals with autism to ensure those feel good chemicals flow through their bodies (and, at the same time, they will flow through your body as well).


One of my clients even has some pool water from our Outback Salt Water Pool at the Keyes Oasis Retreat.  Prior to the pandemic, her son regularly attended swimming and aquatic exercise programs with us.  This pool water is ready for her son to smell if things get overwhelming, exacerbated by the fact that he can’t enjoy the pool as before.  Strange? Maybe to some, but it certainly is a release mechanism and helps and that’s all that matters.

In the pool, I normally do musical exercises with my clients, the young and not so young.  I have titled them AIMs (Aquatic Individual Movements). Many of us can’t go to the pool at this current time; for many, we are unsure when this will once again be possible. In the meantime, I have suggested to some of my clients to do various movements at home in a simulated fashion.

These home-based moves I call “AIM to Dance” are loosely based on an idea that I got when Greg and I recently became certified with ‘La Blast’ under Louis van Amstel.  Louis, well-known from Dancing with the Stars and a three time World Ballroom Champion, based his entire fitness program on ballroom dancing.  Dancing is for everyone, young or old, fit or not so fit, male or female, but also for those with autism.  However, the focus of simplicity in the teaching style must always be remembered and not allow it to become overwhelming.

One example is as follows:

Teach the basics of the dance like the Merengue, which originated in the Dominican Republic in the 1800s but often thought to come from the Caribbean.  This dance is an ideal routine to begin with due to the simplicity in movement pattern and can be taught through use of the Reverse Pyramid Learning Curve.  The Merengue pattern of side steps with arms is: 2 x 8, 2 x 4, 4 x 2 (8-8-4-4-2-2-2-2) = 32 Counts.  The Merengue Basic Turn is 360 degrees right and then left = 1 x 8 (8 x 8).

Place in a straight line on the floor, 16 blocks in a bright red color; shoulder-width apart if room permits. This of course can be done outside if you have a yard or private open area. (Please remember that colors normally stimulate positively with those on the autism spectrum. However, if this is not the case with your child or individual in your care, please make the appropriate adjustment.) 

Draw or put down a removeable tape as a center line with 8 red blocks in a straight line either side of this line. The blocks each represent a step and you can simply do the movement behind each block.  8 steps right, 8 steps back to the center then 8 steps left following by 8 steps back to the center.

A close up of a green fieldDescription automatically generatedOnce this works well, we can add 8 yellow blocks, 4 on each side of the center line and teach this variation.  Then we go to 4 green blocks, 2 on each side.  And finally, blue blocks, 1 on each side. Repeat 2 times. The initial movement can be steps, hops, jumps or slides whatever works. The person doing the dance can be by himself / herself or hand-in-hand with a parent or caregiver.  It can even be done sitting on a chair or in a wheelchair.

Once the steps work okay, add some of favorite music and away you go. It is fun, educational, and simple to count. You can even make it a line dance and use the four walls of the room or boundaries of an outdoor space.

This concept is transitioned from an activity that I perform with clients in the pool.  Here, I use ducks on the pool deck. Yellow ducks are on wall number 1; pink ducks are on wall 2; blue ducks on wall 3; and white swans on wall 4.

A picture containing water, table, bird, sittingDescription automatically generated

I further encourage parents and caregivers to remind their children or those in their care with autism that this activity comes from ‘Evelyn or Greg’.  Or, in your case, it comes from their swim or aqua instructor or therapist.  This represents is a link of commonality associated with compassion and warmth. This association transfers, even with the physical separation, into the gift of movement that they previously experienced together.

I make sure that all my clients have a picture taken with me and/or Greg showing the fun and joy we experienced together in the pool.  I encourage their parents or caregivers to have this on display when the various activities occur; again, a visual link to span the distance.  If you don't have such a photo, consider asking the aquatic instructor or therapist to share his/her photo taken in the aquatic environment. This will allow your child or individual in your care to relate to the photo and benefit from the influence of commonality and relationship. 

Our dear friend and client Thomas. Photo’s published with permission.

There are many things exercise-wise you can come up with to assist individuals with autism during this time of lockdown. Simply use your imagination or look at the social media streams for hundreds of innovative and fun activities to try at home.  It gives us all a challenge to keep going and implementing new ideas. Give it a go.

Hopefully we can assist many of those on the autism spectrum with something special to hold onto within their safe bubble… instead of seeing the bubble burst and their world being threatened, broken down or shattered.

Yours in Advocacy of Autism and Aquatic Wellness for All!



Evelyn Keyes, BSc, is an internationally recognized presenter from Australia, formerly from The Netherlands, in aquatics both in swimming of all levels and aquatic exercise including special populations with a focus on autism of all spectrums and cognitive stimulation style aquatics. Evelyn has written three books on swimming and aquatics for children and currently writing her fourth, I Wander – Why?, a story of the life of an autistic man and his journey, trials and tribulations.

Greg Keyes, JP, PhD, is an internationally recognized presenter from Australia in aquatics and leadership development, founding four successful businesses and in 2019 released a major book, Aqua-I-Cue, which covers four domains being: exercise science / basic anatomy, basic aquatics, leadership and interpersonal communication dynamics. He also specializes in Interpersonal Communication Dynamics, on which he completed his PhD thesis.  

Greg and Evelyn own GAINGLOW.co and are well known globally for their entertaining and humorous approach to teaching, enabling such to enter the long-term memory of attendees. For more information, contact GAINGLOW (Global Aquatic Instructors Network – Global Lifestyle Organization Web) at www.gainglow.co OR gregandevelyn@bigpond.com OR https://www.facebook.com/groups/gainglow/

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