Autism affects how people who live with it communicate and interact with the world. One in a hundred people are on the autistic spectrum* so naturally some of those people with autism have become divers. Member Debbie Butler shares her daughter’s experiences of scuba diving and BSAC club life.

As Debbie reports: "My daughter Zoe was diagnosed with autism when she was just two years old. At the time she was non-verbal, and has spent much of her education in specialist schooling. Zoe has always had a thirst for knowledge and has an amazing ability to learn if things are presented in an autistic-friendly way. She has always enjoyed being in and around water. 

We were on holiday in the Canary Islands when Zoe was only 12, and scuba kit was brought to the pool where Zoe took her first breath underwater. She loved the experience and was soon asking to try diving in the sea. Zoe fell in love with all the life she saw underwater and every holiday since then she would plead with us to go diving. By the time Zoe was 14 she wanted to get qualified, so we booked for her to do her open water course in Tenerife. 

'Oh and she is autistic so good luck with that mate.' Zoe, in her usual manner, proved everyone wrong

Unbeknown to us Zoe had become a bit of a joke in the dive shop. The instructor assigned to teach Zoe was new to the shop and was given Zoe’s details with a comment “Oh and she is autistic so good luck with that mate.” Zoe, in her usual manner, proved everyone wrong and sailed through her open water course with such ease that I decided to learn to dive so I could join her on her underwater adventures. 

We both decided that we would like to dive in the UK although our first UK dive wasn’t too successful: I had informed the dive shop that we were both newly qualified divers, advised them of Zoe’s autism and booked a beginner’s shore dive. But on arrival Zoe was hit with a barrage of verbal questions all designed to test her diving knowledge, while I wasn’t questioned at all. Verbal questions like this will often overwhelm autistic people and it had certainly put Zoe on edge, which led to her making mistakes in her diving and neither of us had a good experience. Zoe asked me to never dive with that shop again. 

We then decided to join our local BSAC club. Club diving was much more suitable for both of us as we got to know everyone on club nights so that when it came to going diving Zoe was already comfortable with her buddy. It is well known at our club that Zoe has autism, she knows her limits and will only sign up for dives that she is comfortable with. 

Zoe Butler

My daughter’s love for diving has continued to grow because she finds that when she is underwater she can forgot all her worries about the real world; essentially every dive gives Zoe a little break from being autistic. Zoe has enjoyed numerous trips with our club including to Portland, Swanage and Lundy as well as continuing to dive on family holidays. We have both continued our training and Zoe has recently completed her Sports Diver qualification and has clocked up more than 100 dives. She has an amazing ability to retain information, and isn’t afraid to correct others! I remember when we were diving with nitrox for only the second time an extremely experienced diver stated the PPO2 should be 1.6, and quick as a flash Zoe corrected him telling him it was 1.4 and then worked out her maximum operating depth (MOD). 

Zoe has been able to give back to the club too. At our dinner dance the DJ didn’t turn up, but thanks to her love for computers and music she was more than happy to help out and be DJ for the night - being behind a computer actually made the social situation easier for Zoe. 

Her love of diving goes on and Zoe is about to begin university. Naturally she has chosen one with an active dive club where she will continue her diving and is contemplating completing her Instructor Foundation Course (IFC)." 

*Source National Autistic Society

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