Help a Child with Autism Fulfill His Swimming Dreams

February 5, 2017

Hello, my name is Lucia Alonso. I am the mother of a child who is 11 years, full of life and dreams that I, as his mother, have taken as my mission in life to make a reality.

My son was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. With that autism diagnosis came many things, many questions and many obstacles we have had to find our way through. For many years I have been praying for my son to find his way in life, to find something that he could be passionate about, something he was willing to work hard for and, most of all, enjoy. This blessing finally came in the form of swimming.

Alex Discovers the Joy of Swimming

I still remember the day I wrote the Special Olympics to ask if he could join their swim program. Boy was I sweating and shaking writing that email. I was terrified to even go near water with him, but I decided to take a leap of faith and see what could be possible. Walking into the swimming pool that first day I felt my heart rising faster than ever. It was something so powerful and scary all in one. My son was very nervous too–and scared. Water before that day was not something he wanted to be near. We both cautiously walked around the pool to join the other children and instructors. As we walked I cried and prayed for a miracle. A few moments later the kids were paired with an instructor, and they had to walk into the pool. It took my son what seemed an eternity to put one toe in the water. I cried as I watched and kept praying that he would give the water a chance; 15 to 20 minutes later, the miracle I had prayed for became a reality. He walked into the water and never looked back.

I watched in disbelief, in tears with my heart trembling with joy, immense pride, and a peace of mind knowing my son would now be one less child with autism who could potentially lose his life to drowning–as we have all watched happen time and time again.

The six weeks of the program flew by in no time. I was eager to sign him up for his second season only to find out the Special Olympics only has swimming for one season. And now we were standing there wondering what’s next for our son. We had finally found something besides electronics that our son is passionate about and we had to continue to pursue is, but where was the question. That following week I called every swimming pool in our area to see if they had any classes starting soon.

Finding a New Swim Program

I must have called over 20 places until I found one that seemed perfect for us, the Aquatics Center at Mt. Hood Community College. As I spoke to the woman on the phone I couldn’t contain my excitement, I told her all about the Special Olympics and how my son had conquered his fear of the water and was now loving learning to swim and had dreams of becoming a diver and going to competitions. She walked me through the registration process and my son was to start a group class that following week. We wrote his new swimming schedule on his calendar and eagerly waited for Monday to come.

Monday, November 6th came, and we drove to his first class at a new place with new people and many hopes and dreams in our hearts. Alex was nervous but so excited as well. He wanted to see who his new swim buddies were and meet his new teacher. We had been preparing him the days before so he knew exactly what to expect. I took a few seconds before class started to tell his new instructor a little bit about him, what he could do, and what he had learned at the Special Olympics. I also told him what his diagnosis was, and off they went. The class was scheduled for 45 minutes, 45 of which my son was asked to stay in a corner, not let go of the edge of the pool. For 45 minutes he was asked to blow noses bubbles and nothing more, all while the other two children actually were getting a lesson. My son repeatedly asked to swim as well, only to be told time and time again to stay in the corner and blow nose bubbles.

I cried the whole time, and this time it was not happy tears. I knew and felt something wasn’t right, this just didn’t feel right. At the end of the class, I approached the instructor and asked for advice on how I could help my son prepare for next class. This is when it all started to go downhill. He instructed me to go to the front desk and speak to the assistant who would give me more information regarding future lessons. As I walked with my three kids to the front desk, my heart was beating so fast and my hands were sweaty. I knew something was very wrong.

They Eject My Son Because of His Autism

I asked for the assistant. She started off with, “We feel that your son doesn’t fit in well with the class.”

I asked her to be more specific as I didn’t understand how she came to that conclusion. She told me that the other two children were just too advanced for my son. I then asked her to confirm if I had in fact signed him up for their beginners’ class. She confirmed that, yes, it was the beginners’ class, but maintained that it wasn’t a good fit for us and that we couldn’t come back on Wednesday for the next class.

I told her that made no sense to me as my son was a beginner, and he was being asked not to come back to accommodate two other, very advanced, swimmers. She then explained that those boys were in that class because it fit their mother’s schedule better and because they had no other beginners. She mentioned they needed 2-3 kids to make a class worth their time. I then offered to sign up my other two kids for the class if all that was needed was more beginners. She asked me for their ages and said, yes, they could join and come to class on Wednesday, but my son just couldn’t come back.

At this point I knew exactly what was happening, so I asked directly, “Can you please be honest with me and tell me why my other two kids can come, but my oldest can’t?”

She got closer to me and said, “Just between you and me, the instructor doesn’t want to teach him because he has autism.”

At that moment I felt my heart break into a million pieces all over again, just like the day I heard those words, “Your son has autism”–the same pain just a different day. I felt as though my body was paralyzed, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. All I could do was cry.

I grabbed my kids and left. Thankfully, a friend was with me. He drove us home as I couldn’t really function after that. I cried for hours nonstop, I cried because the pain was soo much. It felt like physical pain. My chest hurt–it felt tight. My eyes were swollen, but I just couldn’t stop the tears from coming.

We Don’t Accept The Discrimination that Violates Their Own Inclusion Policy

I knew I needed to do something, but I just couldn’t put my pain into words. I asked a friend to help me as I just couldn’t do this alone. It took both of us to put a letter together: I spoke, she typed. We sent a very detailed email to the president of the college, the dean, and the aquatics director.

The next morning I received a phone call from the college. Five people were on the phone. They apologized for what happened and told me they would start an investigation regarding my son’s discrimination case. They asked what I wanted, and I said, “I just want my son to swim–nothing more, nothing less.” They promised to get back to me with the name of a new instructor and a time for classes. They quickly got back to me with a new class schedule and once again told me they would investigate.

Going back a few days later was very hard, not just for me but for my son as well. He’d heard every word that woman had said to me, so he was nervous about going back. I assured him things would be better this time. I hoped I was right. As we walked in we were greeted by his new instructor, the dean of the college, the disability department director, and the aquatics director. The first question my son asked was, “Where are the other kids? Why aren’t there any kids here?” He didn’t know he had been assigned to private lessons now. He loved having the other kids around and many times used them as motivation to swim like them.

It’s been almost three months since this happened, and the college finally got back to me with their investigation findings, which let me tell you are nothing to be happy about. According to them, because my son was later paired with a different instructor, they found that they did nothing wrong, no laws were broken, no discrimination happened. Nothing. They claim there was ” no violation of reasonable accommodation.”

Ah, excuse me, my complaint was discrimination based on his disability, which was the reason I was asked not to come back to class. They said autism was the reason we couldn’t come back, that their instructor wouldn’t teach a child with autism; that is what they did wrong.

My son just wants to swim. He wants to swim with other kids just like his sister and brother could do, so why not him? I am appealing the college’s decision, but I still need support. Today I ask that anyone reading this help me and my son by emailing Debra Derr, the President of Mt. Hood Community College, at [email protected] and tell her that what they did is not okay, not going to be tolerated, and will not go unnoticed.

Please share this post and ask others to help too. For you, it will just take a few seconds out of your day, but for us it could mean my son will get his chance to be a part of something–a part of a group and maybe even a part of a swim team one day, which is his dream. Last night we took him to watch Swim Team, the movie, and all he can talk about now is being part of the swim team too, going to competitions and getting medals just like the boys in the movie.

From one determined autism mother to another, I thank you for your time and hope you find it in your heart to help me make my son’s dream come true. After all, shouldn’t we all have the same right to just do what makes our soul happy?

~ Lucia Alonso

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14 Responses to Help a Child with Autism Fulfill His Swimming Dreams

  1. Hans Litten says:

    Portland has a wonderful record of defending & repelling repeated attempts to fluoridate its water supply. So I am disappointed you haven’t been treated better by what must be a wonderful place to live.

    One way to look this though Lucia is your wonderful determination and perseverance will make it slightly easier for the next toxicity challenged kid coming down the pipe (and clearly they are going to be a great many) .

    In fact your son has inherited your wonderful determination and perseverance .
    God bless you both. May both your dreams come true.

  2. Teri says:

    If the class won’t take him, teach him to swim yourself. For special needs kids, i think they do best to be taught one-on-one by someone who really cares about them (their parent), instead of mass instructed in school where they will probably be bullied/teased/outcasted and get left behind academically.

  3. Lucy says:

    What a courageous and super Mum you are…see this as a stepping stone as an obstacle you will get over leading you to the perfect swim school and class for your boy. I already see him on that starting block at his swimming gala…then the world is his oyster. Please write and let us know you found a great school for him. Cheering you on (: xx

    • Lucia Alonso says:

      First of, what a lovely name you have Lucy.
      Secondly, I want you to know that I have met with the college President, yesterday to be exact. She was not aware of everything that had happened regarding my sons discrimination case, their “investigation” which truly didn’t even address my discrimination case at all. She was very apologetic and promised me that she personally would see that my son was allowed to swim in a group class and that if any accommodations were needed, those would be made available to him. As we know verbal promises don’t mean much as far as being able to hold them accountable, so I asked her to please email me with everything we discussed so I would have it all in writing for my records. I will write an update post once I have more to share so you know what else has happened. Thank you for your interest and please keep my baby in your prayers.

  4. Shannon E. Peters says:

    my son had swim lessons without any one knowing he was “on the spectrum” – he did not advance very well in his lessons, & his instructors told me that he needed to get over his trust issues with the water. It took a few years, but he did it ! he still dislikes getting water in his eyes or ears, but it doesn’t make him panic any more. I hope you find an instructor who will handle this sensibly, & teach your son what ever your son will learn. Hang in there. I love what you are doing, Mom ! & I am rooting for you.

    • Lucia Alonso says:

      Thank you so much, I know my son will go far in this, all he needs is to be given the chance to learn. There is no limit to how far he can and will go!

  5. Done…….I am sorry you are going through this. This is wrong. Children with ” autism” learn from other children in their class. If you need me to make a phone call I will. Please keep me informed on the outcome. I am so glad your son has found his passion in the water.

    • Lucia Alonso says:

      Mary thank you from the bottom of my heart for supporting my baby. I am so determined to help him continue to pursue his passion, nothing nor anyone will stop him from being in a swim team, going to competitions and winning medals as he dreams of. I will make an update post if I am allowed to so I can fill you in on what happens in the coming days.

  6. Trisha says:

    Lucia,

    Email sent. That being said, I have recently launched a company that lists services, products, etc available to children with autism. Email me and let me know where you are at. I will send you any adaptive swim instructor I have or can find for you!

    Much love from this fellow autism mama!

    • Lucia Alonso says:

      OMG Trisha thank you so much, I would love to see what you find for us here in Portland, Oregon. Thank you for taking the time to email the college in behalf of my son, god bless you!

  7. Nancy Cook says:

    Discrimination against people with any disability is illegal and will not be tolerated.

  8. Tom Davis says:

    How sad that your son may have had his enthusiasm snuffed out so early. While I don’t know all the facts, it certainly sounds discriminatory. So, under the ADA, you might have some legal rights that were violated.

    • Lucia Alonso says:

      Tom, I was told to not come back based on his disability, so yes, his rights was violated, no doubt. I filed a complaint and are talking to some organizations about this in case I need legal representation. I have hopes that now that the president of the college is involved, things start to go a little smother. I will update soon on where we are in a few days.

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