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For most autistic youth, water can be extremely dangerous. A Minn. swim class is looking to change that.

David Reece carries a manikin through the water during a water lesson March 15, 2018, in Wadena, Minn. Reece is on his way to earning his lifeguard certificate. Michael Johnson / Forum News Service1 / 3
David Reece carries instructor Jennifer Yttrie through the water in a lesson March 15, 2018, in Wadena, Minn. The two have been working for several winters to bring Reece from beginner to a student about to become lifeguard certified. Michael Johnson / Forum News Service2 / 3
David Reece listens to instructions for the next step of his swimming lessons in Wadena, Minn. Michael Johnson / Forum News Service3 / 3

WADENA, Minn. — Not unlike most children, David has an irresistible draw to water.

Growing up with a family that loves to spend summers at the lake, there was no shortage of opportunities to chase tadpoles, frogs and observe crayfish in their homes. But as fun as the water was, there was also great fear that David Reece would enter those waters and not return.

Being an autistic child only made those fears worse as children and adults on the autism spectrum are drawn to the water, some of whom are unable to understand the dangers associated with it. Tragically, the leading cause of death among individuals with autism after wandering is drowning, according to autismspeaks.org.

David's family carefully watched him grow up next to the water. Instead of relaxing at water's edge there was always someone on watch, ready to pull him from the waters that to him were so calming.

"Over 50 percent of kids on the autism spectrum will get away from their caregiver at least once by age 10," according to Squid School instructor Jennifer Yttrie.

Squid School is a swimming class structured for all and for specific needs of each individual, and it's offered in Wadena and surrounding areas.

"When an autistic child gets away, 91 percent of them not found in under two hours will be found dead in water," Yttrie continued. "We have heard stats as high as 70 percent drown rate of kids found in under two hours. Even autistic kids who hate bath time love water. They love being completely underwater as they love the viscosity of the water."

Yttrie said then can go into such a calm, relaxed state they can forget to come up and breathe. That is why there are specialized techniques used to teach kids on the spectrum first to be safe in the water, then to swim.

David tried taking swimming lessons, but they couldn't meet his needs. They lacked the structure he needed. When his mom, Tina, heard about Squid School, it seemed like the right fit. The Education for All Squid School, is led by daughter and mother duo Jennifer and Tammy Yttrie. The two teach water survival skills and swimming lessons to all ages infant through adult. They are certified to work with autistic kids and adults. They also have special training to work with infants and toddlers in survival lessons, as well as other special needs students.

For Tina, having her son learn the swimming skills would take a weight of fear off her shoulders. She's got a lot of kids to worry about in her life as a mother of three and mother to many daycare kids at her Wadena daycare, Romper Room.

"I jumped on it, because I have a very big fear of water," Tina said. And she had a big fear for her son.

As any parent fears the dangers of waters, more and more parents are raising children within the autism spectrum — adding even more risk of drownings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates autism's prevalence as 1 in 68 children in the United States. This includes 1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls.

"As autism is on the rise, parents with kids newly being put on the spectrum need to know that their child's dreams don't end with that diagnosis," Tammy Yttrie said.

"People need to know that those unique needs that some call 'special' or 'disabling' don't define you or limit your dreams, and sometimes are just what you need to be successful," Jennifer stated. "Also in the land of 10,000 lakes, many families with members who have unique needs, including fears, don't even ask or pursue swimming lessons as they know typical programs and instructors aren't equipped or trained to work with their unique-needs family member."

David is not letting anything stop his dreams. For him, taking these swimming lessons is just a step in his goals of reaching independence and doing what he loves.

His mom recalled seeing David fall in the water fully clothed as part of his training with Squid School. It was scary for her. "My heart was out in the parking lot," she said.

But for David it was one step closer to his goal.

He's been in training for three winters learning basics, and advanced swimming techniques. In fact, he is about to take his lifeguard certification.

"I think I will go work at a waterpark," said 17-year-old David.

Going from being at high risk of drowning to entering into a possible career as a lifeguard is a situation his teacher and family are extremely proud of.

Last week, his instructor, Jennifer, repeatedly dropped a brick in the end of the pool. Each time, David swam from one end of the pool to the other, diving down to the bottom of the pool to lift the brick and carry it back. Then she sank a manikin in the deep end. Each time, David swam across the pool, swam down and carried the victim back to safety. Then his instructor swam to the deep end and pretended to be a drowning victim. As instructed, David swam to her, reached his arms through hers, communicated that he was there to help and he carried her across the pool to safety.

"She almost drug me under the water," David joked as he talked about the training exercise. The two pick on each other quite a bit.

Meant to be

All joking aside, in each exercise, David demonstrated a confidence in his ability to do what he was instructed to do. It's clear the water is where he is meant to be.

He said going from a non swimmer to being a lifesaver in the water is a very good feeling. And his instructor and mom let him know just how proud they are to see what he is capable of.

"You did everything exactly as you were supposed to," Yttrie said. "I am very proud of you."

"So am I," Tina said.

By the definition of autism, the skills he must attain can't come easily. But he's proving that definition won't limit his dreams. It's partially thanks to his autism that he is so "by the book" in how he practices water safety. When he is taught how to do something one way, that's how he will continue to do it.

"The average teenager gets distracted very easily," Yttrie said. "David does not. He's got everything he needs to be a top-notch lifeguard."

Last summer was the first summer that Tina did not have David glued to her side on the beach. Those that were used to seeing the two together were even concerned when they saw David at the beach without his mom. But David proved he can handle the independence.

"I felt comfortable with him being out there," Tina said. "... he has gained so much self esteem."

David says it's the natural world that lures him toward the water. Tadpoles and turtles brought him to enjoy the mysteries of the water. And now, the place that he loves can hopefully be a safer place with him on guard.

About Squid School

Squid School serves Douglas County and surrounding areas including Sauk Centre, Little Falls, Brainerd, Alexandria, Osakis, Wadena — basically wherever the school is asked, if there are enough students to make it worth the trip.

Squid school was started in 2015 and is open to anyone and everyone, all age groups. Squid School is a member of the United States Swim School Association and is pursuing membership in other aquatic organizations. Education for All Squid School teaches swimming lessons including scuba diving. They also teach paddle boarding, open kayaking, snow skiing and a variety of community and Red Cross classes, according to the owners.

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