Drowning Prevention for Children with Autism

Specialized swim lessons and water safety courses can save lives for kids with ASD

If you’re the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, it’s likely that accidental drowning is high on your list of fears. Water safety and drowning prevention for children with autism are absolutely essential skills to begin teaching early and often.

Studies confirm that parents’ fears are justified. The danger of drowning is much higher for children with special needs, particularly for kids with autism spectrum disorder—both because of the natural affinity toward water that many children with autism have and because of the tendency children on the spectrum have to wander off. In fact, according to the National Autism Association, over 90% of all wandering-related deaths are caused by drowning, making drowning the most common fatal injury for children with autism. Moreover, young children with autism are about three times as likely to experience a fatal injury and more than 160 times as likely to die from drowning as the general pediatric population.

Water Safety for Kids with ASD

Of course, recognizing and understanding the risk is only half the battle. Parents, caretakers, and educators also need to put plans in place to counteract the risks and protect the children in our care. Here are our top tips for teaching and practicing water safety with your child:

Get in the Swim

Clearly, swimming lessons and water safety courses can be the easiest, most affordable, and most effective way to keep our children safe—but it’s not as simple as signing your child up for the community swim team. Children with autism take longer to process instructions or move from verbal directions to action, so they are likely to get frustrated and feel afraid in a traditional swim class. Make sure you ease your child into any swim lessons you decide to sign up for.

Look for a swim class that’s specifically tailored for children on the spectrum, and don’t be put off by the cost. Many community centers and other advocacy groups are starting to offer specialized swim classes at free or reduced prices, and Autism Speaks helps provide swimming lessons for families with financial need through their Swimming Scholarship Fund.

While at the lessons, observe carefully and make sure that the instructor is calm and patient with the children. If children feel stressed about the water, or learn to associate swimming with performance anxiety, they are more likely to panic and forget their training in an emergency situation. The instructor’s goal should be to build skills and confidence among the students. Pathfinders for Autism has created a tip sheet for swim instructors that also serves as a great starting point for parents wondering what to look for in swim lessons.

Take Steps to Prevent Wandering

Most accidental drowning deaths among children with ASD occur while the child is wandering. Prevent wandering by using a visual schedule, having a plan in place, installing safety locks and alarms on all accessible windows and doors, and alerting local first responders of the tendency your child may have to wander.

In general, it’s also good to get the neighbors involved. If you have a pool, be sure that you have a fence around it with a gate that locks, and ask any neighbors with pools if they’d be willing to do the same. Letting your neighbors know that your child may wander (and giving them permission to get involved) can go a long way toward keeping your child safe. Finally, if there are any search and rescue training events in your area, be sure to sign up with your child.

Get the Definitive Toolkit

It takes a lot of effort to keep up with all of the recommended safety measures for children with autism—just thinking about it all can get exhausting. Fortunately, you don’t have to remember everything on your own. The National Autism Association has created the Big Red Safety Toolkit, a digital resource that walks parents and caretakers through all of the steps necessary to keep children with autism safe. The package also includes useful forms, such as Family Wandering Emergency Plan and the Autism Elopement Alert Form.

Stay Alert When Your Child is Near the Water

A drowning accident can happen in a split second. Whether you’re at the beach, at the pool, or simply letting your child splash in the tub, stay within an arm’s length of your child at all times and remain watchful. While studies show that swim lessons and water safety courses do help children with autism better understand the dangers of water and prevent accidental drowning, kids with ASD often respond to triggers in unpredictable ways and may forget their training. It’s best to stay close.

Learn Water Safety from the Comfort of Your Couch

While getting in and around the water is the best way for your child to become a more skilled and confident swimmer, there are also a number of quality computer games, interactive videos, songs, and apps that can reinforce the lessons at home. As with most things you’re working to teach your child, repetition and reinforcement are key. A couple of our favorite water safety sites or games include The Adventures of Splish and Splash, the Kidzone at the Royal Lifesaving Society, and the Canal River Trust Waterside Safety Challenge.

At Springbrook, we use aquatic therapy frequently to provide our students with soothing deep pressure stimulation—and to help them become more comfortable and confident around the water. We believe that all children with autism can learn and make great strides toward independence through treatments, medication, and therapies, including ABA, occupational therapy, and recreational therapy. To schedule a confidential consultation, call us at 864.834.8013.