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OARacle Newsletter

It is summertime, and pools, beaches, lakes, and ponds are wonderful places to enjoy recreation. For autistic children, though, places near water can be dangerous because they have a tendency to wander. A 2018 study that surveyed parents reported that 40% of them said that their child had wandered or attempted to wander at least once after age 4. A recent article on the Disability Scoop website noted that nearly 85% of accidental deaths among autistic children were caused by drowning.

Experts note it is still possible to enjoy water fun during the summer with proper precautions and careful supervision.


Supervision, Deterrence, and Alarms

In an article on the WUSF Public Media web site, Katie Pabst Williams, a director of clinical operations at the Florida Autism Center’s Northwest Florida Division, said that “supervision is key.” She suggests designating an adult to constantly supervise any children near the water or in the water. She also recommends tools such as fences, self-latching gates, and child-locks on door knobs to keep children from wandering or getting into bodies of water. Pool alarms can be used to alert supervising adults that someone has gotten into the water, and pool covers keep kids from getting in at all. An article in the CitySun Times also suggested water alarm bracelets and GPS monitoring devices.


Teach Water Safety

Enroll children in swimming classes early and, if possible, find swimming classes with instructors who are able to address the needs of autistic children. Autism Swim Miramichi, described in an article on the CBC news web site, is one of the first certified swim programs in Canada specifically designed for children with autism. Certified lifeguards trained in working with autistic kids work one on one with individual children. They use tools like timers so the child knows the schedule and keep toys to a minimum to reduce the distractions of bright colors around the pool.

The lessons focus on water safety as well as swimming, teaching basic skills, always swimming with a partner, and asking for permission before going into the water. Cindi Green, the program coordinator and founder, said in the article that “Children with autism in general, they need rules to live by. And they are very concrete thinkers. So maybe we can help prevent actual drownings from a child who wanders to the water.”

Some organizations and companies in the United States also offer swimming lessons for autistic children. A 2016 article on the Parents website has several helpful suggestions for finding a swimming instructor, including to look for a swim school that is a member of the United States Swim School Association. It also noted that YMCAs often have swimming instructions for kids with special needs and listed Safe Splash Swim School, a company with locations around the country.

For more about swimming safety, consult these resources:


Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.