YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — In the pool, he’s “Mr. Daredevil.”

Archie Balilo fearlessly hurls his 2½-year-old body into the water and is caught by the waiting arms of occupational therapist Lt. j.g. Davia Christiansen.

When the aquatic therapy session ends, the child — diagnosed with Down syndrome — uses sign language to ask for “more.”

Then Christiansen hears a word spoken softly — “please.”

“He verbalized!” Christiansen says happily. The verbal victory calls for a high-five, which Archie returns with the plastic starfish he’s holding.

What looks like playtime in Yokosuka’s Purdy Fitness Center pool is actually pediatric aquatic therapy — a new program offered by U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka’s Educational and Developmental Intervention Services.

The therapy is used for toddlers with autism, speech trouble and physical disabilities to supplement EDIS’s “land-based” work, physical therapist Lt. Toby Degenhardt said.

The program started last month with four children, he said.

“Water is such a different environment,” Degenhardt said. “It’s the first time in the water for these kids, but they seem to love it and are doing great.”

Water displaces about 70 percent of a person’s body weight, which makes bodies buoyant, said Christiansen, who works one-on-one with each child for 30 minutes a week.

But while the toddlers think they’re just having fun, Christiansen stretches their muscles to increase mobility and range. She directs them to jump and kick, which builds strength in developing muscles. Even the floating bubble toy — a favorite of little Erika Sendaydiego — helps strengthens the muscles needed for speech as the kids blow bubbles, Christiansen said.

The pool “is one of the best places to work,” Christiansen said, as she did aquatic therapy for Easter Seals prior to joining the Navy. Parents also can work with their kids in the water and just the “skin-on-skin contact from holding a child in the water” can increase bonding between them, Christiansen said.

Back on land, the hope is that the toddlers will have improved confidence and ability to perform their goals of walking, crawling and running, she said.

The program will move outside to a warmer pool in the summer. Right now the children wear T-shirts over their bathing suits, as the ideal aquatic therapy temperature is 92 degrees, Christiansen said.

The pool time is donated by Yokosuka’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation, allowing EDIS to operate the program at no cost, Christiansen said.

Parents are supportive of the program and cheer on their children from poolside.

Two-year-old Matthew Guarin sobbed for the duration of the session last week, but his mother, Glemor, said they wanted to give aquatic therapy a try.

“I think he likes it, otherwise he’d be trying to escape,” Glemor said.

Erika Sendaydiego tried to escape at first, but now she loves coming to the pool, said her mother, Lizabeth, a Yokosuka spouse.

“She’s had three sessions and she likes it so much,” Sendaydiego said. “It’s different, but she’s better than before.”

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