Thriving with autism through swimming: the Danica Lin story

Story by Thomas Hiatt

For 8-year-old Danica Lin of Morris, being submerged in water quiets her mind and calms her skin, putting her in a state of euphoria. This attraction to open water is common among autistic kids like her. Unfortunately, in this calm state, they tend to simply forget to come up and breathe resulting in an estimated 91 percent fatality rate for autistic kids who wander unsupervised into bodies of water. The mission of Education for All Squid School, of which Danica attends, is teaching special needs children and their parents the skillset to avoid these tragedies.

Danica’s parents immigrated from southeast China over 20 years ago. They first lived in Chicago but later settled in Glenwood when they opened The China Panda restaurant in that area. They subsequently sold it to a family member and moved to Morris to open a third China Panda (the other location being Milbank, South Dakota, also run by a family member.) Danica was diagnosed as having non-verbal autism (although she speaks a few words here and there in both English and her parent’s native Mandarin.) Because of her fondness for open water, her parents sought to enroll her in swimming lessons specific to autistic children and discovered Education for All Squid School.

Tammy Yttrie explained that; “most swim instructors are not trained to work with special needs kids in the water. My daughter, Jennifer, and I found a program in San Diego, California that teaches instructors to work with special needs kids in the water, focusing on autism because of their high drowning rate. Although it was super expensive and was 100 percent out of our own pocket, she and I went to San Diego and got nationally certified in 2016 to work with autistic and special needs kids in the water, Gabriella got certified in 2019. My daughter, granddaughter and I are the head instructors for Squid school.”

The owner-operators are the tri-generational Yttrie family consisting of mother Tammy, daughter Jennifer, and granddaughter Gabriella. “We are completely family-owned and family-run.” This three-woman enterprise focuses on teaching drown prevention self-rescue swim skills to everyone, with an emphasis on the special needs community. Jennifer estimates that about 20 percent of their clients are on the autism spectrum, Jennifer would like to see that percentage increased. She herself has a second daughter with some special needs.

Jennifer explained: “Danica’s mom had heard about us, then contacted social services and social services contacted us about doing the lessons. Social services was unwilling to abide by our payment policies, so (Danica’s) mom said, ‘fine I’ll just pay for this and worry about getting the money back later.’” Jennifer embraces the fact that her mother has a special relationship with Danica based on the Chinese cultural emphasis on grandparents. “The one thing my mom has is the ‘grandma effect’, each of us instructors have different personalities, and we take that into consideration when working with our students, that’s just one way that makes us great.”

On most Fridays, Danica takes the bus from school and mom drives from Morris to the Glenwood pool at the Wellness Center. The reason for this long commute is that is where squid school currently has pool availability. However, it is hoped that the work being done to remodel the Morris Regional Fitness Center pool will be completed soon and permission to do lessons there acquired, as the Glenwood pool is becoming too small for Danica’s growing accomplishments. At present, she wears a wetsuit during her lessons. According to Tammy, “The wetsuits provide compression, which enhances muscle memory; even if her brain doesn’t necessarily remember what to do, her muscles will. And for autistic kids, the compression of their wetsuits calms their skin, and it quiets their nerves, so that their brain and their body can work together.” She will eventually learn to go in the water fully clothed and learn how to respond to landing in the water unexpectedly.

“I’ve put Danica in a kayak in the pool, and she’s totally figured it out,” Tammy stated. Many things about an autistic child are about desensitization. So, we had to desensitize her to equipment to get her to use it and to keep it on. And that’s a process. Unlike other swim instructors who forbid the parents being present for fear of the children not being as responsive to lessons because of their presence, at Squid School it is encouraged when appropriate. The parents themselves need to know what their child can and cannot do in the water. Danica’s mother is present for all her lessons. Danica has never missed a scheduled lesson and has completed 18 lessons.

Some of Danica’s accomplishments are: 

She has learned to wear flippers, a shark fin, life jacket (not her favorite things) and to wear her wetsuit. 

Danica has learned to swim with equipment and swim independently, put herself in a back float and hold that back float. 

She jumps in, gets herself to the edge and out of the pool only using the edge of the pool. 

She also can paddle a kayak. 

The autistic brain doesn’t tell kids to close their mouth when near or under water. Danica is working on closing her mouth. For Danica spouting water is a sensory thing and she must override her own brain to keep her mouth closed.

A point of pride for Jennifer is in having taught an autistic teen to swim and trained him to become a certified lifeguard! Unlike the “Rain Man” stereotype of the flat-affected, emotionally unavailable autistic, Danica – in the trusting arms of grandmotherly figure, Tammy, and with a supportive mother at the pool’s edge – spritzes and beams at her own growing accomplishment.