Rosie and Ross talk about volunteering with Autism Swim

Rosie Chapple & Ross Leighner

24 April 2023

Rosie and Ross talk about volunteering with Autism Swim

Two of our incredible Behaviour Support Practitioners volunteered with Autism Swim this year, supporting the Dippers program in Bronte. We’re proud to be involved in an endeavour that does so much to create freedom and social connection for people with disability.

About Autism Swim’s Dippers program

Autism Swim are international inclusive aquatic education specialists. Their mission is to make aquatics inclusive and they promote opportunities for those who are neurodiverse or have specific learning needs to learn water safety, water therapy and learn to swim across a range of aquatic environments. Did you know that children and young people on the autism spectrum are 160 times1 more likely to drown than those not on the spectrum?

Autism Swim works with local Surf Life Saving Clubs, volunteers and sponsors, to run the Dippers program at beaches around Australia. The program offers lessons to raise water safety awareness and opportunities, and supports participants with a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1 volunteers per participant.

Today we’re sitting down with Rosie Chapple and Ross Leighner to find out more about the Dippers program. Rosie is a Behaviour Support Practitioner and Provisional Psychologist with Ability Consultants; she completed her thesis project in cognitive development, and holds a Bachelor of Psychological Science (Honours).

Ross is a Senior Behaviour Support Practitioner, Certified Behaviour Analyst and Team Leader at Ability Consultants. He holds a Bachelor of Science (Special Education), Master of Arts (Applied Behaviour Analysis) and is recognised as an International Behaviour Analyst by the International Behaviour Analysis Organisation (IBAO).

We’re grateful Rosie and Ross were able to share their time and knowledge with Autism Swim, their participants, parents and carers.

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Volunteering with Autism Swim

What inspired you to become a volunteer with Autism Swim?

Rosie: I’ve always loved the water myself and know first hand the therapeutic qualities it possesses. I also have many clients who benefit from hydrotherapy, and the sensory relief it provides them rivals that of many other kinds of therapy. Autism Swim presented an opportunity for me to step out from behind the desk and take a more hands on approach to the work I was otherwise doing in a classroom or home setting. It was a chance to improve their quality of life, in real-life… which I thought was pretty cool.

Ross: I always try to balance my work with some community involvement and volunteer work. I love the beach, sea and helping kiddos on the autism spectrum, so Autism Swim was a perfect fit! As behaviour support practitioners, two of our ultimate goals are to assist with improvement in quality of life and to assist individuals in meeting their person-centred goals. Opportunities for real-life application are where the magic happens, so thanks to Autism Swim for supplying this amazing experience for the community!

How often did you volunteer?

Rosie: I volunteered on a weekly basis spanning the months of February and March, with a 7:30am kick off at Bronte and then wrapped up around 9am.

Ross: I volunteered at four of the Bronte Dippers sessions.

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What to expect as a volunteer with Autism Swim

What specific role did you play as a volunteer?

Rosie: As a volunteer I assisted with the set up for Dippers’ events, which included carrying down the surf boards, equipment, tent and the various toys the club had at their disposal.

We started with sand-based warm ups which we encouraged the kids to take charge of and then moved onto water–based activities. Every participant was assigned two volunteers on day one so there was an opportunity to build strong rapport throughout the season. We all got involved and helped build the participant’s confidence in the water by teaching them how to float, kick, swim, dive, put their head under and use the paddleboards. We also helped them build relationships with one another by organising group activities such as tug-of-war.

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Did you need to prepare for the sessions in any way?

Rosie: You are pretty much good to go as a sand based helper, although I would encourage anyone to get their Bronze Medallion from your local Surf Life Saving Club and you certainly need a Working with Children Check.

All volunteers are provided with online training from Autism Swim, which includes things like sensory needs, behaviour support, communication and facilitating a safe and happy experience for everyone.

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As a Behaviour Support Practitioner, which of your skills were you able to put into practice and how?

Rosie: I adopted the types of interactional styles I use in a therapeutic setting and applied them to our Saturday morning sessions. This was pivotal, as without rapport the success of the program would not have been what it was. It was all about making them feel comfortable and heard but also about being able to challenge them so that they got the most out of the experience.

I was able to apply my knowledge and understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder and how it can present/react in different people and/or environments.

Children on the autism spectrum often revert back to the familiar, what's normal and routine — the security of the ‘known’ provides them comfort, like it does for many of us, but the point of this program is to encourage them to extend themselves — and that’s exactly what we did. With the extensive skills and knowledge base of the whole team, the participants who walked into the program were certainly not the same as the ones who walked out! This was pretty incredible to see and be part of.

Ross: Showing families and the rest of the team how to incorporate assent-based interactions with the kiddos and how to identify early signs of escalation to know when is an appropriate time to push past certain comfort zones and when to back off to let the participant lead the session.

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The Dippers program is open to people on the autism spectrum as well as individuals with other disabilities. What are some examples of how the program and volunteers encouraged inclusivity?

Rosie: The program is mapped out in a way that encourages participants to pick and choose what it is they would like to do based on their own abilities and goals. Some participants were more comfortable on the shoreline, having not had much experience in the water. Other participants were eager to get amongst it, but with this confidence presented new challenges as their enthusiasm was recognised and they were encouraged to reach their full-potential.

This is not a ‘one fits all’ program by any means, the sessions are very much individualised according to the participant you are working with. In saying this, there are multiple opportunities throughout the session for participants of all ages and stages to interact with one another and build friendships amongst themselves. The volunteers themselves come from a vast range of backgrounds, and so the buddy pairing system allows for certain skill sets to be paired with certain needs.

What do you consider to be the most rewarding aspect of volunteering with Autism Swim?

Rosie: Honestly, I just had no idea the amount of progress the participants would make throughout the course of the season. Week by week, we got immediate gratification from them reaching yet another milestone — and the milestones were tangible ones too (which is particularly satisfying), like being able to put their head under, or to stand up on a board, or to dive to the bottom of the ocean. It was awesome.

Ross: Autism Swim creates a sense of community. It was so rewarding to be able to join families gathering at Bronte on Saturday mornings for a common goal: to get their kiddos in the water.

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How can individuals volunteer with Autism Swim?

Autism Swim’s Dippers program will kick off again when the weather warms up, at beaches around Australia. This year, Autism Swim ran the Dippers program in Bronte, Coogee, Bondi and Port Macquarie, with plans to expand to more parts of Australia next season. Autism Swim believes that every SLSC should be prioritising inclusion.

To become a volunteer with Autism Swim, express your interest through the Autism Swim website. The Dippers program usually has quite a waitlist; you can join their waitlist as a participant here at the Autism Swim website.

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Video: Thank you to Cass Brothers Productions; music credit to Reece Kairys.

Images: Thank you to Cass Brothers Productions and Nat Sports Media.


  1. Guan, J & Li, G, 2017, ‘Injury Mortality in Individuals With Autism’, American Journal of Public Health 107, no. 5, pp. 791-793., DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2017.303696

Rosie and Ross talk about volunteering with Autism Swim

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