Water safety for your autistic child

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder are more often than not captivated by water and it is not hard to understand why this is.  Playing or being in water is a Sensory heaven for many!  The way the water feels on their bodies, the sound water makes when they splash in it and the visual reflections off the surface are both calming and soothing and for some a bit like a dangerous drug.

Autistic children are drawn to water and many do not understand the dangers associated with it.  Tragically drowning is one of the leading causes of death among people with autism so it is incredible important for us to put safety measures in place for our children whilst on holiday and from a very young age.

Starting with swimming lessons for your autistic child at a very young age is most likely the best piece of advice that we can give you as it is never too early to start teaching your child how to swim.  But being able to swim does however not guarantee that the child is going to be safe around water.

Teaching “safety” is vital!  Water safety is not just about “being able to swim”.  Teaching water safety is also about teaching the autistic child:

  • Not to run near water;
  • Not to run around a pool where they can slip;
  • Not to dive into a pool head first but rather feet first;
  • Not to drink pool water and not to open then mouth when they are in the pool;
  • Not to go near water in stormy weather;
  • Not to stand with their back toward the ocean;

Bathroom safety, hot tubs and spa safety and even fish pond safety – teach the child what can and can’t be done around these different bodies of water.  We also need to teach our autistic children about the dangers associated with natural bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers, streams and the ocean.

  • Rivers and streams have dangerous rocks in and near them;
  • Oceans have dangerous currents, undertows’ and tides;

The list of water dangers is pretty long – so here are a few tips for the holidays:

  1. Supervision: always make sure that a child is watched whenever they are near or around water.  This includes bathrooms and the garden that has a fish-pond.  Don’t assume that a child that can swim will not drown.
  2. Safety devises: make sure you have pools nets, pools fences, fish-pond covers/nets and you can even get warm alarms these days.  If you are at a resort introduce your child to the life guards on duty and make sure that the life guards are aware of your child’s affinity to water.
  3. Social Stories: introduces your child to water safety by means of social stories for autistic children.  Make the stories graphic and fun and teach water safety as often as possible.  Talk about dangers in the garden and around the pool and think about putting up safety pictures.  The more you talk about it the more likely your autistic child will be to remember the dangers associated with water.
  4. Never leave a young autistic child unattended in a bathroom. Not even when the child appears to be well propped in a safety tub or bath ring.  Drowning happens in seconds and the majority of accidental burns and bathroom drawings happen when a child is left unattended.  Lock bathroom doors at all times and make sure that your autistic child can’t fill the tub with water when you are not looking.
  5. Know the danger points. If you are travelling then know where the danger points are.  The beach and ocean will be obvious danger points, and so will the resort swimming pools but what about the estuary, water fountain or Jacuzzi in the area?
  6. Never let your child swim without adult supervision – this and “never allow your child to be around water without adult supervision
  7. Floatation devises – always make sure your child has a safety costume, life jacket, water wings or a safety tube on when near water.
  8. Check weight limits on safety gear: Please make sure all the children’s floatation devices or life jackets are appropriate for the child’s age and weight range.
  9. Take precautions to prevent wandering – if you little Autist is drawn to water, take safety precautions that will stop them from getting out of the house / unit or home. Make sure windows are closed, secure and that they can’t climb over wall or escape the safety of the unit you are staying in.
  10. Call in the help from strangers – let your neighbours, the security guards, life guards and local shop owners all know that your child has a tendency to wander and that he/she has an attraction to water. Ask for help and get the people around you to be on high alert with you.

Rest well, fish, swim and soak up the sun BUT remember that just because people can swim does not mean that they are safe in or near water.  All drawings are preventable – the end!

Ilse Kilian-Ross

Ilse Kilian-Ross is the owner of Amazing K, a registered ECD and Partial Care Facility in Johannesburg. Amazing K is a private adhd school, autism school and therapy centre for children from age 2 - 6 years where learners receive the best of both the schooling and therapy world. The autism school offers Individualized Education Programs, Speech- and Augmentive Alternative Communication (AAC) therapy as well as a full and adapted Academic Curriculum.