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My Autistic Son's Journey With Scuba Diving

Witnessing his excitement, and happiness is something every parent hopes for their child, especially a parent of an autistic child, I just get to do it 60 feet underwater.
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My son, Jacob, has always loved the water. As an infant, he played in the tub until the bath turned cold. In preschool, he built boats out of the blocks and commandeered the faux fishing boat at the local children's museum. Gordon Lightfoot's 1976 Grammy award-winning song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" set off a 2-year-long obsession with shipwrecks culminating in a trip to the heralded White Fish Point.

Jacob's deep love of shipwrecks opened up a keen interest in the underwater worlds. When he was 8 years old, we signed him up for an introduction to scuba course at our local pool. He floated in the pool, blew bubbles, and breathed underwater with the use of scuba gear. Jacob left his class enamored and determined to become scuba certified when he turned 10, the legal age for junior open-water certification. For the next two years we heard all about his quest to become scuba certified so he could visit the many sunken ships he had read about. He was a voracious reader and lover of documentaries, spending hours upon hours learning about the many sunken ships in the Great Lakes, near where we live, in hopes of one day diving to the bottom of Lake Michigan and exploring them in real life.

It was no surprise that on Jacob's tenth birthday he didn't want a party, or a bunch of presents. He just wanted to become scuba certified. I brought him to our local scuba shop to sign him up, along with my water-loving husband. While parents were not required to get certified with their child, I was worried about Jacob's Autism and ADHD and how he would handle the water -- and the requirements for certification. Being the overprotective parent that I am I wanted his father to become certified with him, helping to quell my own concerns about the safety of scuba diving. I was sure my husband would take to scuba diving like the fish to water he is, while I could sit on the beach and hold down the fort.

I am the sand dweller in our family -- I had my own trepidations of the water after an undertow sucked me out past the water break as a child. Even 30 years later I still became panicked in the open water, my heart rate would quicken and my teeth clenched every time I went near a large body of water. So imagine my surprise when my husband informed me he was not signing up to get scuba certified with Jacob. My eyes cut to our 10-year-old son, who was witnessing this discussion unfold. Fear washed over his face as he realized that if one of his parents didn't decide to participate in the class then he could not become scuba certified.

I smiled at my son, my heart in my throat. "I'll do the course with you!" I exclaimed. I still don't know how I put aside my fear of the water for my child, but seeing his expression I knew I had to step up and take one for the team. What I didn't realize at the time was the extensive benefits scuba diving would have for Jacob. For a child that is quiet, and lacks self-esteem scuba diving has given him confidence to speak about his trips with not only his classmates, but also adults. Diving has also provided therapy benefits for Jacob's Autism. The equipment is like a giant hug, providing deep proprioceptive feedback to his system. Scuba diving has given so much to my son; I never could have dreamed it would be so beneficial.

Over the next few months, Jacob studied for his course, did the confined pool dives with no issue, mastered the underwater skills, and then successfully passed his open water certification while we were on vacation in St. Thomas. And I was there every step of the way, learning with him. Studying doesn't come naturally to Jacob due to his ADHD and Autism, but he hunkered down, focused his attention on the materials, and passed the written test, quite an achievement for a kid who struggles to keep up with his classwork on a regular basis.

Now, three years later, he and I travel the world, just the two of us, exploring underwater reefs and shipwrecks. This past summer Jacob, now 13 years old, did his first shipwreck dive, the Kittiwake in Grand Cayman and was a natural. I sat back and allowed him to lead, watching him skirt through the various room openings, as he guided up the exterior of the bow, and over the helm, playing with the machine gun turrets, and grabbing hold of the wheel. He was in heaven, and so was I witnessing his excitement and pleasure.

It is amazing that my son's love of shipwrecks has opened the world up for me. Scuba diving has given me the gift of overcoming my fear of the water, an opportunity to travel the world, but most importantly it has brought my son and I together. Witnessing his excitement, and happiness is something every parent hopes for their child, especially a parent of an autistic child, I just get to do it 60 feet underwater.