8 Water Safety Tips for Autistic Children

Family enjoying Waterpark

Water safety is extremely important for individuals on the autism spectrum to learn in their lives. They tend to have an affinity for water, which is part of the reason why drowning is one of the most common causes of death for people on the autism spectrum.

This is why it is so important to help autistic individuals learn the skills they need to be safer around the water and to seek out destinations or attractions with trained and certified staff.

Caregivers: Be Aware, Be Safe Around Water

Researchers and autistic people alike have long speculated on water’s attraction for those on the spectrum, though no studies to date have determined the exact cause.

Many believe that it is water’s soothing qualities, along with its tendency to reflect, shimmer, and produce patterns as it moves that draws autistic individuals to it.

Whatever the attraction, water-related deaths number among the leading causes of death for autistic individuals.

One study, a 2014 University of the Sciences in Philadelphia report, even rated drowning as the leading cause of death in autistic children. In people of all ages with autism, it ranks fourth, according to researchers Joseph Guan and Guohua Li, writing in the May 2017 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Those statistics often cause parents or caregivers to avoid vacations near water attractions. If you’re one of these cautious caregivers, we understand.

However, being around water has been shown to have numerous benefits for autistic people, and many are naturally attracted to it. Helping them become more comfortable in and around water can significantly reduce the risks involved when they do seek it out.

The key is finding a way that it can be a safe and enjoyable experience.

1.    Teach Your Loved One the Importance of Water Safety

If your loved one hasn’t learned yet, first teach him or her about the importance of water safety. If your child is young, get them used to water at an early age. Teach water safety rules through books, picture cards, or stories.

2.     Find an Autism-Certified Water Safety Instructor

Since panic is one of the main causes of near-drownings, it’s important to teach people on the spectrum how to handle themselves in the water. Being in water can be experienced differently for autistic or sensory-sensitive individuals, and it can be easier for them to get overwhelmed.

This is why gaining experience with water in controlled environments can be so important. Learning how to swim and becoming comfortable in water can provide peace of mind—and protection from drowning in case a person wanders into the water.

Having the capability to swim also can come in handy in flooding, boating accidents, or other emergencies.

3.     Begin Getting Comfortable with Water on Land

If a person has a fear of water, says Psychology Today’s Patty Chang Anker, it’s best to find an instructor willing to begin the acclimation process outside the water. That goes double for autistic individuals persons with autism, whose hypersensitivity can make the process more difficult.

4.     Start the Process Slowly and Describe Potential Sensations

Anker advises instructors to start slowly. If the student can understand, the instructor can teach the person how buoyancy works, as well as some of the sensations that may occur.

5.     Getting in the Water: Learn What to do in Case of Panic

As the lessons progress into water skills, instructors should teach new swimmers what to do in case of sudden panic.

Even Experienced Swimmers Can Experience Panic

As Anker points out, even experienced swimmers panic in some situations—such as a sudden fall into moving water, a rough landing after a water ride, or getting caught in the undertow at the beach. Teaching coping strategies gives swimmers more confidence.

6.     Teach Foundational Skills to Avoid Drowning First

With a skilled provider, says Patty Huang, MD, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, autistic children can learn many swimming skills necessary to prevent drowning in most situations in relatively little time.

7.     Turn Foundational Skills into More Advanced Skills: Improving Swimming Skills

As they progress through their lessons even further, they develop confidence, better motor coordination, and learn to adapt to sensory differences. Some, she points out, even develop more extensive social skills through interaction with their classmates.

8.    Advanced Swimming for Autistic individuals (as Desired)

Some autistic people who learn to swim may develop a special interest in the sport. For those children who do, there can be several mental and physical health benefits that come from continual improvement of a skill and quality exercise.

A child doesn’t need to be swimming to get health benefits from being in the water.

Affinity to Water for an Autistic Child

Dr. Chris O’Shea’s son, Sebastian, has autism. After Sebastian took some preliminary semi-private instruction at a facility near the O’Sheas’ home, they discovered that he had bettered his diving skills and begun to play with some of the other students.

At the autism-certified Beaches Resorts – Ocho Rios, O’Shea found a willing instructor to further his training. While his son could not complete a successful dive the first time around, they look forward to progressing more on their next visit.

The experience did, however, demonstrate the value of having instructors willing to work with someone on the spectrum—and the value of venues whose staff has had autism training.

Certified Autism Centers™: Water Parks and Other Related Venues

O’Shea points out that even more importantly, parents and caregivers should go out of their way to find the sorts of venues that “expand the horizons” of people on the spectrum.

When those venues have undergone IBCCES training in how to work with autistic individuals, parents and caregivers can have confidence that these experiences will be positive ones.

Water parks and other water-related venues that have met the standards to become Certified Autism Centers can be found on the AutismTravel.com directory.