At Yale, Megan Sardis created a safe haven for disabled children

Megan’s time at Yale brought focus back to two loves she had nurtured since she was a high school student — swimming and caring for autistic children.
Two people in a swimming pool.

Megan Sardis started SNUGS in 2017 for underserved children with autism or intellectual disabilities in the New Haven area.

For the first few years after Megan Sardis ’21 arrived at Yale, she nurtured competing visions of her future. 

She decided to major in global affairs, but also took pre-med classes. Perhaps she would become an engineer, or a doctor. She thought about pursuing a business degree, and maybe even starting a non-profit business. 

But eventually the intellectual eddies swirling around campus and the New Haven community carried her back to two loves she had nurtured since she was a high school student in Bernardsville, N.J. — swimming and caring for autistic children. 

A marriage of those two passions led her to launch a program called SNUGs (Special Needs Undergraduate Swim Lessons) National, which offers underserved children with autism and other disabilities the opportunity to immerse themselves in the calming confines of a swimming pool.

Sardis knows her way around a pool herself. A member of her high school swim team, she walked on to the Yale team during her first year on campus. One day Sardis, who’d volunteered with autistic children since she was 12, mentioned to swim coach Jim Henry that she’d noticed a lack of programs for children with autism and other disabilities in New Haven. 

From her interest in healthcare and psychology, Sardis knew that autistic children have a heightened attraction — and connection — to the water. The immersive calm of the water and repetitive nature of swimming strokes seem to offer respite from social distractions that can overwhelm them. But every year some unsupervised children drown. So why not get these children in a pool to teach them to swim safely?

The project started with six girls referred to them by the Yale Child Study Center. During the first SNUG class at Payne Whitney, Sardis found that her anxiety about her own future just floated away.

I can lose myself during those classes for hours,” said the Saybrook College resident. “I lose track of time.” 

She launched a marketing blitz to attract more underserved children with autism or intellectual disabilities to the program. Now, SNUGs National has served more than 150 families, aided by 50 volunteers from Yale, and is offering aquatic clinics in nine locations across the United States.

After graduation, she will take a job doing clinical research for the Mt. Sinai Seaver Autism Center in New York City. “It won’t feel like a job,” she said.

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