Cindy Freedman (left) and Ailene Tisser founded SwimAngelfish.
SwimAngelfish Cindy Freedman (left) and Ailene Tisser founded SwimAngelfish.

The numbers are alarming: One in 45 American children ages 3 to 17 has some form of autism, according to a 2014 report by the CDC and the National Center for Health Statistics. And drowning is the leading cause of death for those with autism.

Fortunately, there are Cindy Freedman and Ailene Tisser.

The duo founded SwimAngelfish, a Connecticut firm that helps people of all abilities learn to swim. Specializing in children with conditions such as autism and sensory processing disorders (but ready to help anyone), SwimAngelfish programs can be found at 20 locations in four states, in venues varying from hotels to YMCAs and Jewish community centers. It also offers workshops and DVDs to help professionals, parents and caregivers impart water skills to this group.

Before starting SwimAngelfish in 2000, Freedman and Tisser had their own pediatric therapy businesses. “As therapists, we understood the underlying problem, why [the children] are having trouble with water and why traditional methods were not working,” Tisser says.

For instance, a child might find water disorienting: “They get in, and gravity is eliminated,” Tisser says. “So they’re startled at having no gravity to feel where they are [as] their feet are off the bottom.”

The therapy focuses on treating underlying problems rather than symptoms, Freedman says. Like land-based therapy, it helps improve students’ motor skills.

“Parents are grateful, because now their kids are more receptive to new things,” Freedman says. “They say the SwimAngelfish class is the best day of the week for the kids.”