Anyone can drown, but according to research, the risk of drowning is substantially higher for children with autism — as much as 160 times higher than the general pediatric population! With this startling statistic, it’s crucial to understand the risks and provide the necessary resources for children, teens, and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to be safe around water. Continue reading to learn about the increased risk of drowning in people with ASD.
About Autism Spectrum Disorder
According to 2018 data (the most recent data available), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that approximately 1 in 44 children in the US is diagnosed with ASD.
ASD is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave. It’s known as a “spectrum” disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience. As a result, the abilities of people with ASD vary significantly.
Why Children With Autism Have a Higher Risk of Drowning
Several factors can contribute to an increased drowning risk for children with ASD. However, since the characteristics of ASD are unique to each individual, the risks vary. Still, people with autism need more support and guidance when swimming or playing near bodies of water.
People with ASD can easily get distracted, wander off and find themselves in a body of water. In addition, they may be unable to communicate when they are in danger or understand what to do in an emergency. Worse, approximately 40% of people with ASD are non-verbal, which means they can’t call for help.
A sensory-based explanation for drowning begins with the fact that people with ASD are sensitive to many stimuli.
Sensory overload can occur when the brain receives too much information from the senses. People with ASD often have difficulty determining what they need to pay attention to and what they can ignore.
Many people with autism are also sensitive to specific frequencies of sound, light, and touch, making them more likely to experience panic attacks or an inability to cope with stressful situations.
Sensory processing disorder (SPD):
Individuals with ASD have difficulties understanding, organizing, or using information from their senses. It may affect their ability to filter out background noise during conversations or concentrate on one task at a time; it also usually means that they will find certain textures unpleasant.
These terms refer not only to a physical response a person with ASD has when exposed to certain stimuli like loud noises or bright lights but also how they process sensory stimuli mentally (for example, by becoming anxious about it).
There are many types of over-responsivity or under-responsivity, depending on whether talking about physical reactions versus emotional ones like fearfulness or anxiety. Either way, these issues tend not just to influence behavior but also self-esteem because they make many everyday experiences difficult for those affected, even if those challenges aren’t always easy for others around them to understand.
Keeping People With ASD Safe Around Water
Water safety is extremely critical for individuals with autism. If you are the parent or caregiver of an individual with ASD, consider taking the following steps to keep them safe around water and prevent drowning.
Teach Individuals With ASD the Importance of Water Safety
It is never too early to teach your child with ASD the importance of water safety. Exposing your child to water at a young age will help them become comfortable around it. Use visuals like picture cards or social stories to teach rules related to water and maximize learning. Be on the lookout for a tendency toward or special interest in water.
Find an Autism-Certified Water Safety Instructor
People with ASD can experience being in the water differently than others, making it easier for them to become overwhelmed and panic. It’s one of the reasons gaining experience with water in a controlled environment is essential. Learning how to swim and be comfortable in the water can provide peace of mind and protection from drowning.
Find a pool where classes are offered specifically for children with autism so your child feels comfortable learning how to swim in a safe environment.
Emphasize the Dangers of Water
Staying safe around water is about more than just the ability to swim. It’s vital that individuals with autism understand the importance of water safety. While some children and adults with autism are capable swimmers, their attraction to water can still lead them into dangerous situations — like a body of water with a strong current. Make sure the individual understands all of the dangers associated with water.
Take Precautions To Prevent Wandering
If your child is drawn to water, ensure pools are gated and inaccessible. Install window and door alarms on your home to know if your child has left your home unsupervised. Never leave your child unaccompanied or out of sight near the water.
Spread the Word
Let your neighbors know about your child’s tendency to wander and their attraction to water so they can be on high alert. Distributing a flier with information specific to your child can be very helpful. In addition, the Autism Speaks Neighbor Alert Letter is an excellent way to notify your community.
Help Us Keep Everyone Safe From Drowning
Even if you don’t have a loved one with autism, understanding the dangers for someone with autism can save lives. Together we can end the heartache of losing a loved one due to drowning. Take our Water Safety Challenge to measure your family’s water safety competence and help us provide water safety outreach to schools and community groups to keep kids safe.