Mar 162012

Eric Robinette may be a 16-year-old boy every other day of the week, but on Thursdays he’s a shark.

That’s when he goes to Hubbard Family Swim School for lessons, a routine he’s kept up for more than a decade. Since starting at age 5, he’s progressed to “hammerhead,” the school’s program for advanced swimmers.

Eric has moderate to severe autism, a developmental disorder often manifesting itself in difficulty with communication or social skills and repetitive behaviors. Helping him learn to be comfortable in water was a concern for his family. After a failed attempt with a private instructor at home, Eric’s family found Hubbard.

So far the experience has been nothing but positive.

“He likes to swim, he likes his teachers, he likes all his awards,” said Liz Ellertson, a family friend who takes Eric to his lessons.

Eric’s story is one Hubbard hopes to duplicate. In that spirit, the school this year started an Autism Family Swim on the fourth Saturday of every month. Parents are encouraged to bring autistic children to the Hubbard’s Mesa branch at Riverview off Dobson Road and Loop 202 and spend time in their two heated pools.

This month’s swim is the second since the program started and will be from 2:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday and costs $5 per family.

Bob Hubbard, the school’s co-owner, said one reason for the family swim is because parents often might not know their own child’s capabilities. Water provides an instant, all encompassing sensory feedback that many, especially autistic, children find soothing, he said.

“We just feel that kids with autism and water are a good mix,” school co-owner Bob Hubbard said.

The one lesson Hubbard learned since starting the school is never to put expectations on a child, he said. In addition to the work with autistic children, the school has helped kids with cerebral palsy, blindness or missing limbs swim as well as anyone.

“The rewarding thing is having a parent cry on your pool deck when their child accomplishes something impossible,” Hubbard said.

The school focuses on levels, colorfully named after animals such as tadpole, jellyfish or lobster, that set baselines for how comfortable a child is in the water and what skills they’ve acquired. For example, once a child is comfortable enough to get into the pool without crying, open their eyes underwater, and exit the pool by themselves, they can graduate from “tadpole” to “goldfish.”

Hubbard and his wife, Kathy, first opened their school in October 1999. The business now includes locations in Phoenix, Peoria and Mesa and teaches about 4,000 children. The three schools teach a combined total of about 75 special-needs children a week.

Despite the number of students, Hubbard stressed that 90 percent of the teaching is still one-on-one. All special-needs children start off with individual lessons and, depending on progress, might join the mainstream programs. Even then, instructors will only teach up to four children at a time, he said.

“Every child’s half hour is their half hour,” Hubbard said.

Patricia Fuller’s son, David, gets that half hour every Friday and Saturday.

David, 7, has high-functioning autism and started attending Hubbard a year and a half ago. Fuller had searched for a place specializing in teaching special-needs children. David’s school had no suggestions for her. She ran across Hubbard while taking David to a play center next door.

Since discovering Hubbard, Fuller has sent fliers to her son’s school, reached out to other parents and praised the school on Facebook, she said.

Fuller said since joining she’s been impressed with the staff’s dealings with autistic children like David. The school’s habit of giving out ribbons and other prizes as kids advance through the levels is also something autistic children like David respond well to, she said.

“He loves it — capital “L” — loves it,” Fuller said.

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