Date of Award

Fall 2020

Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Psychology, PhD


School of Social Science, Politics, and Evaluation

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Paul Zak

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Jeanne Nakamura

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Saida Heshmati

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

John Ashby

Terms of Use & License Information

Terms of Use for work posted in Scholarship@Claremont.

Rights Information

© Copyright Brittany Bell, 2020


Aquatic therapy has been shown to have behavioral benefits for participants with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) including social and swimming skills. The mechanism through which aquatic therapy has these effects has not been demonstrated. It is noted that several aspects of swimming programs such as deep breathing, physical exercise and cold exposure have been shown to increase vagus nerve activation (Mason et al.,2013; Presmanes et al., 2015; Yuan et al., 2001). Using a quasi-experimental block design, the present study evaluated the effect of aquatic therapy on vagal tone as well as behavior in participants with ASD (n=32) and without ASD (n=32). Measures consisted of social, swimming, emotional and cognitive tasks. Following the aquatic intervention participants with ASD demonstrated a statistically significant increase in vagal tone while typically developing participants displayed a significant decrease. The ASD group’s increased interest in the aquatic intervention and dysregulated vagus nerve activation may account for the groups’ difference in post-treatment vagal tone levels. The typically developing group’s lack of interest in the perceived trivial activity may account for the decrease in post-treatment vagal tone levels. However, both groups displayed a statistically significant increase on each social, swimming, emotional and cognitive measure. Positive correlations between vagal tone and social skills measures were found in participants with ASD. This study indicated that aquatic therapy can increase vagal tone in participants with ASD while also increasing swimming, social, emotional and cognitive abilities in both participants with and vi without ASD. Aquatic therapy is an intervention that can be replicated to treat individuals with ASD. It also has potential to be adapted for other mental disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder.

Included in

Psychology Commons