5 Steps to Swim Safety for Your Child with Autism

As the summer heat settles in, many families head to pools, beaches grow crowded, and our time spent near water becomes part of our routines. What seems like a standard summer activity for most can be challenging for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families.

Sadly, drowning after elopement, a term used to describe the tendency for some individuals with autism to wander from caregivers and secure locations, is a leading cause in death in children and adults on the autism spectrum. In fact, a 2017 analysis from Columbia University found that children with ASD are 160 times more likely to die from drowning than the general population. Other studies report similar findings—and highlight a dire need for more awareness and preventive measures.

Given the impairment in cognitive functioning and language 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 water can take over. While this may seem like ominous news, on the plus side, a study from the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders provides an initial indication that children with ASD can develop skills to avoid drowning.

What does that mean for you, as a parent or caregiver of a child or young adult with autism? Fortunately, you can take steps now to keep your loved-one safe and secure this summer—and beyond. Here’s what to do:

  1. Exposure

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

  1. Precautionary Measures

    If you own a pool or live near water, make sure you use 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.

  1. Strategies

    Establish rules for your loved one with ASD. Practice and review these rules before going near water and throughout a visit or trip to a pool, lake, river, or ocean. Present these rules and other strategies in a way that can easily be understood and reviewed often. Consider, for instance, developing a social story that outlines the expectations of what it means to be safe near water. You can also provide replacement behaviors, such as how to enter water and when it is safe to be in water; teach children to identify and respond to common safety signs related to water; and model appropriate behavior when swimming or near water.

  1. Discussion

    Talk to neighbors who own pools about your child’s increased risk of roaming and drowning. Discuss the issue, too, with all lifeguards at your pool, babysitters, extended family—and even your local police department. As a parent or caregiver, you are your child’s best advocate, especially when it comes to safety. Some police departments provide a safety plan or alert form that allows for your child’s likes, fears, and behaviors to be documented, all of which can help immensely in the event of an emergency.

With these five proactive steps and clear directives, a successful trip involving swimming isn’t out of question—and is actually encouraged. Go enjoy the beach and plan to visit the local pool, but don’t forget the power of preparing and communicating with your local support systems.

Help your child stay safe this summer with the National Autism Association’s Big Red Safety Box. You can apply to receive the box of tools and resources for free, or download the NAA’s Be REDy Booklet for Caregivers at no cost.