Water Safety & Your Autistic Child

boy at poolThis week marks the beginning of swimming season, as outdoor pools across Colorado Springs opened on Memorial Day weekend.  Water safety, while a critical life skill for any child, is especially important for kids on the spectrum. Autistic children are frequently drawn to water, and statistics indicate that drowning is a leading cause of death for autistic individuals.

Before heading to the pool or the lake this summer, take the time to teach or review important water safety skills with your child.

Consider Sensory Needs
Many kids on the spectrum have sensory needs which must be considered when teaching them to be safe in and around water. Sensory avoiders may need to ease into the pool and get used to the water before they are able to enjoy the experience enough to benefit from a swimming lesson. Sensory seekers may love the pressure they get from the water and just jump right in, not recognizing the potential danger.  Tailor your approach to water safety based on your child’s specific sensory needs.

Teach Water Safety
All children, whether or not they are interested in swimming or even getting into the water, should be taught water safety skills.  The most important water safety rule is this: unless an adult is present, the child should never go into any body of water.  If your child is rule driven, teach him or her specific rules for safe behavior around water (e.g. “You do not go near water without an adult near you”, or for a younger/preverbal child “You do not go into the water without a familiar adult holding your hand”).  After the rules have been established, practice them with your child (at the pool, by a lake, etc.) to ensure he or she has internalized them, and so you can reinforce safe behaviors.

Teach Swimming
The ultimate water safety skill is knowing how to swim. Whether you choose to enroll your child in swimming lessons or teach him/her to swim yourself, set your child up for success by tailoring the approach and learning environment to your child’s needs. Minimizing distractions while your child is in the water (e.g. by scheduling lessons during less busy times) is generally helpful.  If your child is a visual learner, use pictures to show the steps involved in swimming (tip: laminate the pictures to make them water-proof!). You may also want to show your child a video of a person swimming before you begin lessons.  YouTube has a large selection of swimming and water safety videos for kids.  Finally, ensure that swimming skills are broken down and taught progressively from simple to more complex (so as not to overwhelm your child), keep things consistent, offer lots of opportunity for practice/repetition, and above all, keep swimming lessons fun!

Water can provide a wonderful sensory experience for kids on the spectrum. Teaching your child how to be safe in and around water will pay off in hours of enjoyable and refreshing summertime fun!