Scuba diving can be a wonderful, potentially life-altering experience. For many people, descending beneath the waves of the ocean, or even into a lake or quarry, can feel like exploring an alien planet filled with unfamiliar forms of life. While humans evolved to live in terrestrial environments, about 71% of the Earth is covered with water and about 97% of that is ocean. Further, all life on Earth is thought to have originated in an aquatic environment. One could then argue that the oceans, with their variety of distinct ecosystems, represent the primary habitat on Earth. This, I feel, drives an intense curiosity about the undersea world for many of us.
Recreational scuba diving is a fast-growing sport and is by no means restricted to those with related jobs, but scuba can also be used in a range of natural science careers (both marine and freshwater). There are many scientists whose fieldwork includes underwater surveys of fish, algae, and invertebrates, collecting samples at depth, or even conducting habitat use, feeding, or reproductive studies while diving. If you are interested in this sort of work, earning scuba certifications while in high school or college can be enormously beneficial.
However, it should be noted that scuba diving is not for everyone, can be quite expensive, and is absolutely not required for a career in marine/aquatic science. The message you take away from this post should not be “I have to spend a lot of money on scuba courses and gear or else I can’t be a marine scientist.” A lot of marine science is done in labs and on computers, rendering scuba training unnecessary. I know many marine scientists who can’t even swim, let alone scuba dive! Even amongst those who are scuba certified, most only dive for fun, not work.
I bring up scuba here because, in addition to being a moderately common tool for marine and freshwater scientists, it can be a unique experience for those on the autism spectrum. In particular, the sensory and organizational aspects of autism and Asperger’s can have massive implications when scuba diving, both positive and negative.
General Therapeutic Effects
There have been anecdotal stories of individuals diagnosed with ASD (DSM IV autism and Asperger’s) experiencing moderate relief from sensory stresses and anxieties while scuba diving for some time. As far as I am aware the only formal study on the subject came out of Midwestern University in about 2014, though this study simply analyzed personal accounts of autistic divers to identify common themes and experiences. Drawing on my experience as an autistic divemaster, I can confirm that many positive aspects of the scuba experience can (sometimes, in some people) impact common types of sensory issues. Neurotypical scuba students frequently report these benefits as well, though they may be more striking for autistic divers.
Many autistic people derive comfort from weighted blankets or similarly thick clothing; this is thought to be the result of increased pressure on the body. While I can’t explain why this works physiologically or psychologically, it is a widespread experience. When scuba diving, the ambient pressure on your body increases rapidly due to the weight of the water above you. That pressure is double what you experience at sea level after descending only 10 meters (33 feet) and increases linearly with depth. Autistic divers have commonly reported that this increased pressure, in addition to the squeeze of their exposure suit, provides a comparable effect to that of a weighted blanket.
For some people on the spectrum oversensitivity to certain stimuli can cause headaches, anxiety, and stress. Because diving narrows your perception through impairment of most senses, it can significantly reduce sensory distractions. When diving, your vision is narrowed by your mask, smell and taste are severely limited, hearing is minimal, and tactile reception can be reduced with gloves. Some have described this as freeing, simultaneously relieving the anxiety and headaches associated with overstimulation and improving focus. I cannot speak to the medical validity of this, though it is an interesting possibility.
Finally, dive training can offer a sense of confidence and accomplishment to anyone willing to put in the time. This is frequently cited as a major benefit of recreational dive training for neurotypicals, and I feel it extends to the autistic community. Particularly for those of us who may not have a lot of agency and control in other areas of our lives, building confidence through dive training and execution can be intensely fulfilling.
Potential Aspie Advantages
In some ways, Aspies are built for scuba diving. Virtually all scuba training makes use of extensive lists, acronyms, and mnemonic devices. Aspies are commonly drawn to this type of mental organization, and many of us already rely heavily on lists and categories to manage our daily lives. Personally, scuba training felt almost familiar because of how it was structured. Neurotypicals face a potentially high barrier to entry during their initial scuba training because they must adapt their existing mental organization system to keep track of gear, conduct equipment and buddy checks, and establish and remember dive plans. For many Aspies, this manner of organization is more naturally grasped.
Humans (except for fluent sign-language speakers) lose our primary means of communication when diving. To compensate for this, the dive community has developed a set of hand signals that allow for limited communication at depth. Although there are small variations in the use of niche signals and the overall syntax when multiple signals are used in sequence, the most important signals are considered universal. However, because these signals are so simple and so few, divers need to be deliberate when communicating. This system will appeal to some Aspies. Because it reduces communication to only the most necessary messages, normalizes the practice of “speaking” methodically, and eliminates confounding factors like tone of voice and facial expression, some Aspie divers I know find this “language” preferable to speaking on land. Aspies may indeed find they are well-suited to this form of communication and therefore better prepared to become divers.
For Aspies, plans and expectations that are thorough, clear, and explicit are frequently a source of comfort. Due to safety concerns and limited communication at depth this is always the case when diving. Every dive training course will emphasize the importance of making thorough plans for each dive and clearly articulating any goals or expectations. Divers are also taught to stick to the plan, erring only on the side of safety. As the saying goes, “Plan your dive and dive your plan.” I imagine many Aspies will find this culture of safety and explicit communication comforting, as I have.
Potential Aspie Disadvantages
I think I’ve made a fair case so far for why Aspies tend to make good divers, but there are some ways in which we may be naturally unprepared. The biggest of these relates to the diving medical requirements and associated sensory issues.
While I am not aware of any proven correlations between autism and other specific medical conditions, the sensory under- and over-stimulation common amongst those on the spectrum can be a problem when diving, depending on how it manifests. For example, the rapid pressure changes involved in diving affect gas pockets in the body including the lungs, inner ears, and sinuses. Divers must compensate for these changes by breathing full, calm breaths and exhaling while ascending (lungs), equalizing/clearing their ears, often manually (inner ears and sinuses), and always ascending slowly (both). Although I have never witnessed autism-related sensory issues prevent a would-be diver from properly performing these tasks, someone prone to over-stimulation in their sinuses, for example, would almost certainly require extra help during training to get used to it. Similar sensory issues could arise with breathing compressed air, which is necessarily cold and dry and can be uncomfortable in the mouth and throat.
Another skill that may present some difficulty to autistic divers with sensory issues is the conscious regulation of breathing rhythm and overcoming the instinct to hold one’s breath. As mentioned above, lungs are fundamentally gas pockets that will expand and contract as the ambient pressure changes. This can cause a serious lung over-expansion injury if a diver, for example, holds their breath and swims upward. Slight changes in lung volume (inhaling and exhaling) will also influence a diver’s buoyancy, allowing for fine mobility control. For these reasons, dive training courses emphasize conscious control of breathing and expect students to maintain that control throughout every dive. I know one individual on the spectrum who struggles with sensory over-stimulation when she starts to think about her breathing. While I imagine this might be a rare issue, it would be a significant problem when undertaking dive training.
I have known some Aspies for whom anxiety is a defining facet of life and who are prone to panic easily. If this sounds like you, I recommend that you approach diving with caution. While scuba diving can be a tool to regulate anxiety and panic through comfortingly thorough training, clear communication, and reduction of sensory over-stimulation, this regulation must be learned early in the training process. The best advice I can give to someone in this situation is to share their concerns with their instructor clearly, and to accept that extended training time in the pool may be necessary. Anxiety does not preclude you from becoming a successful diver but pretending that it isn’t part of the equation might put you in a dangerous situation.
Finally, diving is a social sport. While Aspies generally don’t experience speech delays in childhood, many of us have to work very hard to figure out the unwritten social rules that neurotypicals grasp quickly. Different Aspies do this at different rates during different stages of their lives, and some will probably never understand their neurotypical peers. I don’t personally see this as a failure or shortcoming, but it does create practical issues when entering a highly social activity that is, like most things, dominated by neurotypicals. There is no magic advice that will make your dive peers like or understand you. All you can do is keep a good attitude and open mind, give your best effort, and communicate genuinely. If possible, it may also be best to dive with a friend or family member who knows you well and will not be put off if a social rule is broken.
Getting Started—Finding a Healthy Dive Culture
While the vast majority of dive operations are shining examples of safety, there are plenty of less-than-reputable businesses that cut corners either out of laziness or to minimize expenses. Once you have engaged with such a business, they will frequently use peer-pressure (yes, really) to get you to finish your training while overlooking equipment safety issues or rushed instruction. All prospective divers should make sure that they are pursuing training through a reputable organization, especially those on the spectrum who anticipate needing extra time or assistance.
You’ll want to start by looking for an open water or introductory scuba course (these are common terms for a “basic” recreational scuba certification) offered by an internationally recognized dive training agency. These include the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), Scuba Schools International (SSI), Scuba Diving International (SDI), the British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC), the Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques (CMAS, also called the World Underwater Federation), the National Academy of Scuba Educators (NASE), and others.
Visit a dive shop, school, or training center associated with the agency of your choice and inquire about the dive certification process. Voice any questions or concerns you may have, including relevant sensory issues or significant anxieties. This initial conversation can tell you a lot about how a dive operation is run and, when coupled with online reviews, will form the basis of your decision. Learning to dive requires honesty and vulnerability, particularly if you have sensory/autism related concerns. That can be scary! You need to decide whether you feel comfortable being honest and vulnerable while working with this operation’s staff. All the effort will pay off when you receive patience and individual attention during training, and with a certification card that will be recognized by dive operators around the world. If you decide to pursue advanced dive training or even a career as a dive professional, you can rely on this familiar and trusted operation for guidance.
Getting Started—Adaptive Diving
The world of adaptive scuba training is growing rapidly, and new opportunities are popping up all over. This type of training was originally conceived for paraplegic divers, but it has expanded to cover a range of physical and mental conditions including most forms of autism. While the process I’ve outlined above may work for many Aspies who are capable of “passing” as neurotypical and/or who have relatively mild sensory concerns, people (Aspie or otherwise) elsewhere on the autism spectrum may benefit from adaptive training. This includes anyone who struggles with basic verbal communication or learning in a traditional academic setting, has severe sensory issues, or who does not function autonomously to the degree a diver normally would.
If you fall into this second category and want to learn to dive, your best bet (in the U.S., at least) is to find a shop with an instructor certified by the Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA). This sort of thing will usually be emphasized on a store’s website. The HSA site (hsascuba.com) is supposed to help you find instructors, divemasters, and dive buddies who are HSA certified, although at time of writing each of these links causes the site to crash. I recommend starting with an internet search for “HSA Instructor” followed by your area.
HSA instructors are scuba instructors who have undergone additional training and are qualified to teach students with a range of physical and mental disabilities and conditions. Depending on the dive operation and your unique situation you may be placed into a class with neurotypical students and given the extra attention and support you need, or you may get entirely private lessons. If you have a friend or family member who dives and would like to dive with you, the HSA offers a Dive Buddy Course (DBC). This course prepares divers who are already certified to partner with paraplegic, quadriplegic, amputee, and blind buddies. I have been told that the most recent version of the DBC includes information about diving and the autism spectrum, though I can’t personally confirm this.
For me, scuba diving is as much about focusing my mind on a single task as it is about exploring. It grounds me, calms me, and keeps me active. While I can’t guarantee that diving will have these effects for all Aspies, I encourage you to try it if you are at all interested.
Your best source of advice about diving in the context of a science career will be faculty mentors engaged in diving research, so seek them out and talk to them. Lastly, remember that diving is far from required in the aquatic sciences; it’s just one of many tools that can be used to study marine or freshwater systems. Whether or not you decide to (or are able to) take up scuba diving, you are welcome in the natural sciences.
I am not a medical professional; the advice and views expressed here do not constitute formal medical advice. Further, these writings are my own and do not necessarily represent the official positions of any dive training or safety agencies with which I am affiliated, including the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), Scuba Schools International (SSI), and Divers Alert Network (DAN), or that of any dive operations for which I have worked.