Why Swimming and Water Play Benefit Kids with ASD

By Ashley Williams, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA

Many children with autism are drawn to water for its calming, sensory experience. In fact, a 2015 study[1] found that children with ASD enjoy swimming significantly more than children without ASD. And while water can present a safety concern, water play and swimming also offer several benefits for children with ASD.

How can you build on your child’s interest with activities that promote safe and fun water exploration? Here, I offer ideas and share the benefits of swimming and water play for kids with ASD.

1.     Leisure skills

Swimming and water play are great alternatives to many sedentary leisure activities in which children engage, such as playing online games or watching videos on screens. Many families of children with autism report difficulty finding non-electronic leisure activities for their child. And while your child may have other interests, it can be an added challenge to find activities that will sustain their attention for longer periods. Ideal for encouraging more extended periods of independent leisure time in children with autism, water play offers a great solution.

Try, for instance, setting up a water table with different sized cups and tools for pouring, scooping, and squirting water. This activity particularly benefits kids who are learning to explore water safely but don’t yet have interest in or safety skills for independent play in a pool.

2.     Physical health

It probably comes as no surprise that swimming and active water play offer fun ways to integrate movement and physical activity into your child’s day. Swimming represents a low-impact exercise and can boost cardiovascular health, while building strength and endurance.

To promote physical health during swimming, practice “bobbing” in the water. If your child does not like water on their face, practice jumping in shallow water. Encourage vocal verbal skills, such as counting, by modeling counting out loud or having your child count or spell as they bob or jump in the water.

3.     Creativity and imaginary play

Swimming and water play offer endless ways in which children can play, allowing you and your child to create new games and use your imaginations to explore the water.

You can investigate the buoyancy of different objects by seeing which objects sink or float. Ask your child to select some water-safe toys, and watch as the toys sink or float in the pool, water table, or shallow bin of water. Another visual, sensory activity involves dribbling a few drops of food coloring and observing how different colors diffuse in the water. For added fun, provide bubbles, sponges, or a toothbrush—and watch what your child can do or create.

4.     Family time

Some families report difficulty in identifying shared interests with their child with ASD, and many children with autism have narrow or restricted interests[2]. However, thinking creatively about safe water play may help you identify additional interests for your child that are shared with siblings and caregivers alike. Family time in the pool or during water play can create a shared activity and interest for the whole family to take part in and enjoy, while giving you a chance to cool off on a hot day.

Encourage your child’s communication by asking questions about what they see, hear, and touch. Do you notice floating leaves, frogs, or beetles that have made their way into the pool? Use these sensory experiences in the water to ask questions, share interest in the water, and promote communication. Your child can practice pointing, nodding, or responding vocally to your questions about your shared environment.

As you enter the last stretch of summer, use these tips to promote fun and safe water exploration. Then, when your child builds confidence in and around the water, consider swim lessons that teach your child water safety. And while the ultimate goal of swim lessons is to teach your child to swim, safety skills like floating, exiting a pool independently, and holding on to a ledge or wall are often taught first. To learn more, read our blog post “5 Steps to Swim Safety for Your Child with Autism.”


[1] Eversole, Megan, Collins, Diane M, Karmarkar, Amol, Colton, Lisa, Quinn, Jill Phillips, Karsbaek, Rita, . . . Hilton, Claudia L. (2016). Leisure Activity Enjoyment of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(1), 10-20.

[2] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

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.