Swimming for everyone

Tana Carson works to ensure children with autism have the same opportunities to enjoy swimming.

By Anne Riker Garlington

Dr. Tana Carlson
Dr. Tana Carson

For many children, summer is not complete without trips to the pool, water park, lake or beach. Yet, children with autism are often left out of the fun. Tana Carson, Ph.D., OTL, M.O.T., M.S., a 2011 occupational therapy master’s degree graduate of the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions, is working to change that.

Carson, an assistant professor of occupational therapy at Florida International University, is co-developing a graduate level course teaching rehab pre-professionals how to teach adapted swim instruction. Because children with autism have twice the risk of drowning, parents and caregivers are, understandably, afraid for their children to swim, she said. But with appropriate training, children with autism and other disabilities can be safe in the water.

Carson shared the reason for her passion: “I grew up in the Florida Keys and believe swimming is a joyful, playful, leisure activity and should be a part of childhood for everyone.”

Last summer, Carson and a partner ran a pilot test of the swim program at the Florida Keys Adapted Swim Camp. This fall, they will partner with YMCA in Broward County and teach the course at a program called Swim Buddies.

Dr. Carson with iCan Swim child
Dr. Carson celebrates a swim certificate.   (Photo courtesy of iCan Shine)

“My dream is to have every university teaching this swim program with physical therapy, occupational therapy, recreational therapy and special education students. If you can imagine thousands of rehab professionals using this knowledge, it would be amazing and fill a very important gap,” Carson said.

In her research, Carson is examining decreased sound tolerance in autism and developing screening tools for health professionals.

“Decreased sound tolerance among people with autism is much higher than the general population,” Carson said. “When you ask these children about their most meaningful occupation, spending time with family is number one, but spending time with family members who make certain sounds can be extremely challenging.”

Carson developed a questionnaire to help determine outcomes for treating sound intolerance and in 2022 presented her research at the 6th International Conference on Hyperacusis and Misophonia in London, England.

She sees the challenge with research is “it feels like such a marathon, and you aren’t sure it’s actually going to help somebody, but I’m starting to feel it could now.”

Carson’s interest in both autism occupational therapy began at an early age. A cousin she is very close to has autism and Carson saw firsthand the effects of therapy.

“Even as a kid shadowing as my cousin met with her occupational therapists, it made sense to me what they did and how they helped her improve her quality of life and independence of daily living,” she said.

While at UF, Carson helped co-found Impact Autism, a student run organization dedicated to giving back to the autistic community, through quality volunteer opportunities.

A second-generation Gator, Carson did her senior thesis on autism and sensory processing.

“I always knew I wanted to be in occupational therapy because I love the creativity in the wide scope of practice,” she said.

Working closely with the UF faculty and learning their processes inspired her quest to do research and clinical work and combine those areas of interest. Carson is appreciative her professors believed in her abilities and allowed her to work on her Ph.D. and O.T. master’s degrees at the same time.

Carson has a quote which inspires her to keep going, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”