How to Instruct Swimmers with Sensory (Auditory) Processing Disorder (SPD)

How to Instruct Swimmers with Sensory (Auditory) Processing Disorder (SPD)

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is one of the learning barriers that is being identified as the root cause of many troubles that countless children are experiencing in the classroom. As a Dad of a son with Auditory Processing issues, I know first hand how much this disorder comes into play, not only in the classroom, but also in the pool.

Let me share a story about my experience with my son, and perhaps this might resonate with some, whether your child has been diagnosed or not.

When our son was 6, we placed him on the summer swim team. He struggled a bit, but we chalked that up to him having literally JUST turned 6 before the age up cut-off date. He didn’t seem to have a lot of focus, but considering that the entire group was like herding cats, we didn’t think much of it.

At the end of the summer season, we coaxed him into swimming at our Year round swim club with his sister. It was an absolute disaster. While all these other kids were dutifully swimming the drills, my son would literally keep his head submerged in the water, constantly oblivious to what drill he was supposed to be doing , and then when he was swimming it was the most uninspired effort I had ever seen. To be indelicate for a second, it basically looked like he was just screwing around. I would routinely go poolside and tongue lash him for his horrible effort, because it looked as if he just wasn’t trying.

Fast Forward to the following school year, when he had difficulties in school like this with listening and seemingly being unable to process and respond to the teacher’s commands. A friend recommended to us that he see an occupational therapist, because it sounded very similar to challenges experienced with her son, who was a sensory seeker, one the couple flavors of sensory processing disorder.

To use the clinical terminology:

Sensory processing (sometimes called “sensory integration”or SI) is a term that refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. Whether you are biting into a hamburger,riding a bicycle,or reading a book,your successful completion of the activity requires processing sensation or “sensory integration.”

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD,formerly known as “sensory integration dysfunction”) is a condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses. Pioneering occupational therapist and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres, PhD, likened SPD to a neurological “traffic jam”that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly. A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses,which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and other impacts may result if the disorder is not treated effectively.

(Excerpted from

And this is the set of symptoms that one of the leading websites on the disorder assert are trademarks of kids who have SPD (from

  • excessive risk taking – jumping and crashing into anything they can

  • Can’t do puzzles – write well – or find the coordination for riding a bike or hitting a ball

  • Cry or cover their ears with every loud sound – even vacuums, toilets or hairdryers

  • Don’t like to be touched or can’t be touched enough

  • Will only eat a very limited selection of foods and are averse to trying anything

  • Will only wear certain clothes or need you to cut the tags out of their shirts

  • Can’t seem to calm them down or get them to sleep

  • Won’t put their hands in anything messy or use glue, Play Doh, or play with mud

  • Fear playground equipment or being tipped upside down

  • Crowded stores bother them so much leading to major meltdowns in public places

Any of these things can occur normally in an child, but the combination of most if not all of them is a good indication a child may be a Sensory Seeker (someone who has SPD).

And as the OT was running down this checklist it was clearly evident our son was one. The OT asked what kind of sports he might play. When we said Soccer, she asked if when the ball is on the other side of the field, does he just twirl around for no good reason. He did. Then she shot the one out there that just kicked me in the gut. When we told her he swam, she said, “I bet he goes underwater a lot and misses out on the directions, doesn’t he? And has a hard time getting the drills so he kind of does his own thing, too, right?”


I had been chewing my kid out for almost 3 months over something he had no control over. Congratulations, jerk, you just won Dad of the Year. Please step over to the edge of this cliff so we can give you a pat on the back.

Understanding what was going on, and now being relative experts in the disorder, we know what to expect, how we can combat it, and what environments he will or will not be able to function in optimally. The pool is not a great one for him, but we have him swim Summer to make sure he is getting exercise, and doesn’t sprout roots sitting on the couch playing X-box all day. It is challenging for him, but armed with the knowledge of what he needs in practice and how he can be effectively communicated to, he has done better.

Our son’s challenges are mainly in the processing of auditory signals, so I can really only speak to that, and the suggested actions below deal specifically with actions for Auditory processing issues. If a child had other sensory processing issues as well, a list of websites dealing with SPD as a whole is provided for further reference.

So the following is a guide for coaches and parents, which is actually published online by USA Swimming, on how to coach the swimmer with Auditory processing issues, and it also applies to children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD):

There are many strategies that a coach can implement to most effectively work with an athlete that is experiencing difficulties (related to APD/SPD OR ADD). 

1. Communication

Communication is key. Parents, teachers, fellow coaches, and most importantly the athlete may have strategies that have worked in the past. Ask others what is the most effective way to communicate with the athlete. Always let the athlete be aware of the strategies and why you are using them.

2. Delivery Style

Concise and audible often works best. The less a coach says the less there is to attend to, remember, and sequence. If the coach is soft spoken, competing noise will most likely be heard over the coach’s voice.  

3. Preferential placement

Having the athlete in front of the coach and close to any visual information will help the athlete.  It will also allow the coach to be aware of whether the athlete is attending or not.

4. Pre-teach

Reviewing the workout before practice allows the athlete more time to instill the workout into working memory. A message repeated more than once is often easier to remember. Having the workout posted helps those athletes who are better visual learners than they are auditory learners. By pre-teaching, the athlete may have an easier time transitioning between sets. The athlete will know what to expect. This will also help with organizational skills. The athlete will be able to plan what to have at their lane.

5. Visual Aid

Often the athlete with ADD or APD is a better visual learner versus auditory learner.  Have the workout written on a white board by the pool or having waterproof note cards at the lane will help in being able to comprehend, remember, and perform what is being asked of the athlete.

6. Monitor Reception of the Message

Look for “deer in the head lights” or following what the other athletes are doing. Coaches need to be aware of whether the message was received. Repeating the message may be required. Be careful. You do not want to be repeating the set over and over.  The athlete also needs to be responsible for letting you know if they didn’t hear or understand the set.  

7. Compassion

This is the most important strategy of all. Be a positive in the athlete’s life. Help them feel successful by showing them that with hard work they can achieve their goals even with obstacles. Often these athletes have a low self esteem. They often hear that they never listen in the classroom, at home, or in the pool. Help them see that with the help of strategies that they can attend and perform to the best of their abilities.

This is mainly geared to older athletes, but the actions are fairly adjustable.

If you believe that what has been discussed here in this post may describe your child, please go to, where you can learn tons about the disorder (SPD) and who to see if you think your child may be a sensory seeker.

Lastly, the following links deal with swimming for more severe cases, and those involving more than just SPD or auditory processing challenges:

I hope this blog has been helpful for all of you out there reading it, whether you are a parent, a coach, or maybe even a swimmer who has been battling your sensory seeking for years without even knowing that you are one.


The Splashfather

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