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  • Writer's pictureMichael Kenwood (Local Democracy Reporter)

Belfast leisure centres to introduce swimming lessons for children with autism

Child wearing goggles swimming in pool.

Belfast leisure centres are to introduce new swimming lessons for people with autism, in a drive for inclusivity across the service.

During the last meeting of the full Belfast City Council before the May 18 elections, councillors agreed to a motion “to expand and promote inclusive services within our leisure centres to ensure an accessible and welcoming environment for everyone.”

It states: “The council will continue its pioneering work with ‘Swimming Buddies’ in Brooke Leisure Centre and explore ways to expand this across all 12 leisure centres in Belfast, to ensure the life skills of swimming lessons are readily accessible for children at a local level offering a supportive space for families and provided in an inclusive manner.”

Swimming Buddies is a commercial business specialising in autism friendly swimming lessons and has recently expanded to accommodate individuals with other abilities. 

A council report states: “Swimming Buddies have provided autism awareness training to the team at Brooke to ensure they have the knowledge and understanding to deliver inclusive sessions in both the sensory pool and air venture environments.

“GLL is considering a proposal from Swimming Buddies to deliver this accredited training throughout the city. In addition, GLL are considering enrolling some of their swimming teachers onto the Swimming Buddies swimming teacher course with the view of establishing ‘all abilities’ specific swimming lessons within the current GLL Swim School programme.

“This could support the development of more inclusive swimming lessons across the city at an affordable price.”

It adds: “In addition to existing pool allocations at Brook LC, 30 additional lane hours have been offered at Falls LC, Olympia LC, Shankill LC, Whiterock LC and Templemore Baths.

“Senior officers are engaged in ongoing discussions with Swimming Buddies to explore opportunities to develop and expand services including, in addition to pool sessions, supported dry activities and staff training. 

“Andersonstown LC have also engaged with Swimming Buddies to explore opportunities for the delivery of inclusive water slide sessions and will look to add these to the programme in 2023. This will include advice about how to deliver sessions and the delivery of accredited training for staff.”

People Before Profit Councillor Michael Collins told the chamber at the City Hall meeting this week: “The motion came following a number of discussions I had with parents of the Colin Autism Support Network, a group that provides invaluable support throughout the Colin area.

“As a result of these discussions it became apparent there was a severe lack of support for parents and indeed children with autism. Parents told me how waiting times for assessments can sometimes take years, school placements can be incredibly difficult to obtain, and access to services generally can be quite limited for people with autism and other disabilities.”

He said: “Following this (motion) the council will take some significant steps towards supporting people with autism in leisure centre across Belfast, and I am glad to say tonight that it will lead to the expansion of swimming lessons for children with autism, in Brooke Leisure Centre, and will introduce them in leisure centres across the city, including Shankill, Falls, Whiterock and Templemore.

“This will help alleviate firstly the waiting lists of over 300 children who are currently unable to obtain swimming lessons across Belfast due to a lack of pool space. Children with autism are over 160 times more likely to experience non-fatal and fatal drowning than their neurotypical peers, therefore acquiring good water safety skills is obviously of the utmost importance.”


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