Water safety and autism

water safety and autism, swim, autism, Lana Whitehead, Swimkids USA
Learning to swim early is important for all children. Lana Whitehead, of SWIMkids USA, works with Lucia Alegria (6 months) who does not have autism, but definitely enjoys her swim lessons. Photos by Tac Coluccio.

Parents and caregivers must be vigilant whenever children are near pools, lakes and other water features. This is especially true when it comes to water safety and autism.

Drowning is a leading cause of death for children or adults who have autism, according to Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization.

The added risk occurs because individuals with autism are naturally drawn to the water, says Lana Whitehead, owner of SWIMkids USA in Mesa, which offers swim lessons for children of all abilities.

“Autistic children are prone to bolting and elopement [wandering], and tend to go for water,” says Whitehead, who holds a master’s degree in special education and specifically trains her instructors to work with children who have autism.

swim, autism, Arizona, Swimkids USA
Alice Egon (4), of Tempe, enjoys some pool time under the watchful eyes of SWIMkids USA instructors. Though Alice does not have special needs, staff are trained for autism and other special needs instruction for students who require it.

Research by the Child-Mind Institute indicates that “roughly 50 percent of children between the ages of 4 and 10 [with autism] wander at some point, four times more than their unaffected siblings. The behavior peaks at 4, but almost 30 percent of kids [with autism] between the ages of 7 and 10 are still eloping, eight times more than their unaffected brothers and sisters.”

Sue Mackie, executive director of United States Swim School Association in Fountain Hills, recommends the following precautions, which apply to any home or family:

  • Constant supervision.
  • Locked and self-closing pool gates.
  • Locked pet doors.
  • CPR certification for every member of the family.
  • Emergency action plans, including posting your address and phone numbers near the pool.
  • Swim lessons for every member of the family, with children starting lessons at an early age.

When it comes to family members with autism, make sure swim instruction is conducted by instructors who understand autism and are trained to adapt their instruction techniques accordingly.

water safety, swim, autism, Swimkids USA
SWIMkids USA instructor Sage Donaldson, of Gilbert and Aria Van Ess (2), of Chandler demonstrate how teachers build trust with their students. Aria does not have autism but many of these same techniques are used with children who do.

Whitehead recommends the following strategies, which all of her instructors use in sessions with  students who have autism:

  • Routine, routine, routine. Individuals with autism thrive on routine. Parents and instructors can use this to their advantage by teaching students to follow specific steps before getting into water, such as: put on a swimsuit, grab a towel, put on sun block and wait for a verbal OK. Once a routine is established, teachers can begin to gradually change different variables to help students adjust to new circumstances.
  • Compensate for lack of generalization. Individuals with autism have difficulty with generalization (taking information from one set of circumstances and applying that to a new situation). Parents and caregivers can make sure children learn how to swim and play at their own pool, but they need to be sure the skills also carry over to other pools and other bodies of water the children may encounter, such as lakes and oceans.
  • Visual schedules. Visual schedules help children with autism anticipate the sequence of steps necessary to navigate new situations and environments. Visual reminders also help them transition from one skill to the next. It is helpful for instructors to provide pictures of the various steps that will happen during instruction so that students can be prepared.
  • Non-verbal cues. Visuals and demonstrations are the best way to teach children with autism. Sign language can also be utilized for students with weak verbal skills.

Find more information at swimkidsaz.com or visit the site Autism Consortium website at autismconsortium.org.

autism, swim lessons, Mesa, Arizona, Swimkids USA
SWIMkids USA instructor Nikolas Rivera, of Gilbert, with non-autistic student Jocelyn Sucato (3) of Gilbert show how children can learn to float on their backs and call out for help should they fall into the water.