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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  • don sykes

    many thanks to jim elliot and the diveheart crew!! they have done wonders for me and alot of others. i cannot express how many smiles he put back in my life after my accident. thank you very much mr.elliot!!

  • Robert Yates

    My son is autistic and PADI open water certified. He loves it. It has opened a whole new world to him. I am having a whole lot more fun with him as my dive buddy the last 2 years than I’ve had in 20 years of diving. He is more in the moment very relaxed and loves exploring the wrecks and reefs we dive on. I would love to see further scientific research into the benefits of scuba diving.

  • Amy Winters

    Thanks for pointing out that scuba diving allows for sensory freedom which can be calming for someone with autism. My grandson was recently diagnosed with autism, and we’ve been searching for activities and hobbies that will be fun and comfortable for him. I’ll definitely suggest that his parents look into a scuba diving class – it sounds like he might really enjoy it!

  • Dave Anderson

    I think that is so cool that scuba diving helps those with autism to feel calm and welcoming. It is interesting how they can find sensory freedom in the water. My brother has autism, and I think this would be a fun thing to do with him. I think he would enjoy scuba diving, and I know I would! It would be a good brotherly bonding moment!

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