Scuba diving an unlikely tool for kids and adults with autism

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Going deep in search of a sense of calm. Scuba diving builds confidence, especially for those with disabilities. But for kids and adults with autism spectrum disorders, there’s an added benefit.

The lesson starts at the side of the pool. Twenty-six-year-old Nick Johnson and his dive buddy – his dad Glenn -- gear up.

Nick Johnson, scuba student: “Ever since we started diving, felt we’re part of a team, we’re more connected.”

Glenn Johnson, Nick’s father: “I’ve always wanted to take Nick diving, that’s been a dream for years. Never thought I could do it.”

Jim Elliott is the founder of Diveheart, a non-profit dedicated to helping kids and adults build confidence and independence through scuba diving. He’s helping Nick, who has autism, do the same.

Jim Elliott, Diveheart Founder: “We’ve been working with Nick several years now.”

Nick Johnson: “I was nervous at first, but when it comes to water, I just love the water.”

Jim Elliott: “His confidence, he’s really into it. It’s special.”

It shows. In the water, Nick is more relaxed, even playful. It’s something Jim notices in so many of his students – some challenged with disabilities like cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, others with traumatic brain injuries.”

Jim Elliott: “As you go down you have to look really hard at people to see if they have a disability, because when you put all that gear on we all kind of look the same.”

In the water, Nick practices the basics, but as he fills his mind with new skills, a sense of calm washes away the anxiety.

Glenn Johnson: “One time before the dive he was talking about how he really needed to dive, he was under a lot of stress at the time, and he needed to dive to clear his head.”

Jim Elliott: “It’s inherently hyperbaric, so when you go down, pressure increases and that pressure is a therapy for kids with autism.”

Nick Johnson: “Organizes and kind of sets everything straight, so I can think straight.”

A scientific study dove deeper into the benefits of scuba. Researchers at Midwestern University surveyed 10 kids and adults with autism spectrum disorders. They found a common theme among them – finding sensory freedom in the water. Underwater, visual and auditory distractions are minimized. The effect is calming and for someone with autism, it’s a welcome feeling.

Glenn Johnson: “After the dive he’s a lot more relaxed, a lot more in the moment.”

But Nick and his dad don’t need hard data to be convinced. Instead, they’re focusing on future adventures.

Glenn Johnson: “Hope to get him down to the Caribbean and then Lake Michigan and Superior. Seeing his boost in confidence, that self-identity of a diver. He tells all his friends and family.”


To learn more about Diveheart, go to

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