The Importance of Swim Safety for Children with Autism

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

By Jessica Stott, M.S., BCBA, LABA

As  the summer heat settles in, many families head to pools, beaches become crowded, and time spent near the water becomes part of our routines. What seems like a standard summer activity for most can be challenging for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their families. Sadly, drowning after elopement is the leading cause in death in children and adults on the Autism Spectrum. In fact, according to the National Autism Association, the risk of death by drowning is twice as high for children with ASD than in the general population.

Given the impairment in cognitive functioning and language that is associated with ASD, several experts have hypothesized that children with autism tend not to see water as a danger. Rather, their impulsivity and therapeutic love for the sensations of the water can take over.  However, a study published in theJournal of Autism and Developmental Disorders provides an initial indication that children with ASD can develop skills to avoid drowning.

What does that mean for us as parents and providers? It means exposure, precautionary measures, strategies and discussion.

Here are a few tips and suggestions to consider:

Exposure: The earlier the better. Sign up for local swim lessons which are offered at most recreational centers in surrounding areas. Some specialize in adaptive programs geared towards children with special needs which can provide an individualized approach to learning to swim while building confidence and safety near the water.

Precautionary measures: If you own a pool or live near water, ensure the use of locks, gates and other barriers around these areas. After using any small kiddie pools, large tubs, or water play areas, take a few minutes to empty these when done.

Strategies:Provide rules to your loved one with ASD. Practice and review these rules prior to going near water and throughout a visit or trip to a pool or ocean. Present these rules and other strategies in a way that can easily be understood and reviewed often. This can be done through the development of Social Stories outlining the expectations of what it means to be safe near water. Provide replacement behaviors such as how to enter water and/or when it is safe to be in the water. Teach children to identify and respond to common safety signs related to water. Model appropriate behavior when swimming or near water.

Discussion: Communicate with neighbors that own pools about your child, the local police department and your community. As a parent, you are the best advocate for your child, especially your child’s safety. Some police departments provide a safety plan or alert form which would allow for your child’s likes, fears and behaviors to be documented.

With a few extra proactive steps and clear directives, a successful trip involving swimming isn’t out of question. Go enjoy the beach, plan to visit the local pool, but don’t forget the power of being prepared and communicating with your local support systems.