Teaching your child with autism to swim could save their life

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are especially drawn to water; these tips will help you keep them safe this summer.

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When our son was seven and about to attend summer day camp for the first time, my wife asked the camp director if the pool he’d be going to every afternoon was safe. The answer was yes, which was when my wife began to worry. She understood what the camp director didn’t seem to. A pool—any body of water, for that matter—is an inherently unsafe place; especially for a child like ours who is on the autism spectrum.

Drowning is the most common form of fatal injury for children on the spectrum. And children with autism are twice as likely to drown as their neuro-typical peers. Parents of kids on the spectrum can make pool time significantly safer, by following these simple rules and suggestions:

Take classes. “The best advice I would give any parent is enroll your child in swimming lessons,” says Christina Neumann, Aquatics Co-Ordinator at Toronto’s Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. Neumann recently helped design a program to meet the needs of children with disabilities, including those on the spectrum, in which special tools, like Picture Exchange Communication boards (waterproof PECs), make learning easier for kids with autism, who are typically visual learners. If your child doesn’t have access to an adapted program, just make sure her coach takes extra care to break swimming skills down into small steps.

Generalize. Consistency is essential whenever you’re instructing children on the spectrum in foundational swimming skills. Still, Neumann also advises changing things up and having your kid swim in different environments once they’ve grasped the basics. While she works with lots of kids with autism who swim well in the place where they take their lessons, she knows she’s only seeing them in a controlled environment. “Yes, they can swim here, in our pool, but the question is: what happens if they fall into a backyard pool? That unpredictability—the fact things didn’t happen the way they’re supposed to—can throw them off,” Neumann says. The key is making sure they react well in different and sometimes unexpected circumstances, so they can generalize what they learned in swimming classes. 
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Be aware of your environment. According to statistics, lakes are where most drownings occur, and it doesn’t take a lot of time or a lot of water. The risk increases for children on the spectrum, who often tend to wander. That’s why it’s also important to make sure children know or have key information with them, like their name, address, phone number and a medical bracelet or necklace. Neumann also recommends getting your child with autism into the habit of wearing personal flotation devices (PFDs) whenever possible at the lake.

Avoid sensory overload. Prepare your child ahead of time for what to expect when swimming is on the agenda, whether you’re planning to be at a lake or beach or an unfamiliar pool. Talk them through the sights, sounds and sensations to expect. Children on the spectrum are more likely to be overwhelmed by the multitude of sensory stimuli that are part of any water activity. These kids may also be more likely to act on impulse. “They may be attracted to something in the water and not know the difference between a safe and unsafe surrounding. They may not know when they should stay away,” Neumann says.

Educate yourself. Neumann advises parents as well as other caregivers to take advantage of the educational opportunities available to them. The Canadian Red Cross, for instance, holds a Water Safety Week campaign every June while the Royal Life Saving Society Canada holds a National Drowning Prevention Week in July. Courses in CPR and standard first aid are also available year round.

Be vigilant. Adult supervision around water is something every parent can and should provide. As an extra safety measure, alert other adults in the vicinity that your child is on the spectrum so they can help you keep an eye on him or her. It’s also worth having a basic knowledge of the rules and bylaws that apply to backyard pools, around things like having proper fencing and self-closing and self-latching gates. While Neumann advises parents to always be on the lookout for the best-case scenario when it comes to water safety—like having a lifeguard on duty or getting your child to wear a lifejacket—she also recognizes there’s no substitute for vigilance.

Read more:
Ask Dr. Dina: Should I be worried about secondary drowning?
5 fun and easy games that teach your kids how to swim

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