Water Safety in the Land of Autism Spectrum

Boy jumping in waterYesterday my 15-year-old son, Ben, and I were looking through a photo album of when he was much younger. Ben has autism, so an activity like this is special because not only were we sharing “joint attention,” but he was commenting on each picture as best he could with his limited expressive language. We came across a picture of my husband standing on a dock, with the St. Johns River in the background, his arms around our then 5-year-old son. It was less of a tender moment and more of a “if-I-loosen-my-grip-on-this-kid-he-will-be-in-that-water-in-a-New York-minute” moment.

When Ben saw the picture he giggled and exclaimed, “Wanna jump in the water?”—as if he could recollect what he was probably thinking when the photo was taken.

Ben knows he’s not “allowed” to jump in water unless he has permission. However, his impulsivity combined with sensory seeking and skewed understanding of danger make it very difficult to ensure that he will be able to comply with this rule. This is a year-round problem for many parents of kids with autism spectrum. However, summer brings with it more opportunity for our kids to be impulsive around water.

Here are some common-sense suggestions to keep in mind this summer:

  • See situations from your child’s point of view: Summer is the time for vacations, exploring new places, and sensory-overloading experiences. Keep in mind that when you enter a new situation, whether it is a beach, pool, or even a restaurant, children with autism spectrum view and experience the world differently. They may run away or “misbehave” due to sensory overload. Remember that they are doing the best they can and often they see no other option but to seek sensory relief. For our son, this has historically meant that no amount of applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy will stop him from being impulsive if it means having his sensory needs met. This often means jumping into water. Just being more aware of your child’s needs and experiences can help you avoid disaster.
  • Teach your child to swim: There are no guarantees that you will always be able to keep track of your child. To a parent who is not raising an autism spectrum child, that sounds ridiculous, but if you are raising one, you know exactly what I’m talking about. My husband taught Ben to swim when he was 4, and it literally saved his life on more than one occasion.
  • Be intentional about who is watching your child: This may sound like common sense, but often the more people who are around, the more likely someone thinks someone else is watching. On a recent trip to the mountains, I made a card on a lanyard that said, “I’m with Ben.” When it was someone’s turn to be in charge, they wore the lanyard. This came in handy when one of us had to use the bathroom; we could pass the lanyard to someone else, without having to sit on the toilet with the door open. You know you’ve been there.
  • Check the water first: This is going to sound like a morbid suggestion, but in the majority of cases where our kids go missing, they go right for the water. Even if they can swim, it’s no guarantee they won’t drown, and time is crucial in this case. For example, the retention ponds in many of our neighborhoods in Florida can be death traps of quicksand underneath that mucky water. Teaching your child to swim and checking the water first can make the difference between life and death. If you can’t find your child, check nearby ponds, lakes, and swimming pools first. And don’t be afraid to call 911 immediately. It’s always better to have to call back and say, “We found him, thanks anyway!” than the alternative.

Wishing you a safe and happy summer!

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, Asperger's / Autism Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Brenda

    April 3rd, 2013 at 4:08 PM

    I wrongly assumed that simply making sure that your children know how to swim was the answer to water safety.

    But now I see that this is not so easy when you are living with a child with autism. There is that issue of impulsivity that can be managed in children who do not have autism, but which can be so unpredictable in those who do.

    I am so glad that you brought this topic to light as it is going to become even more timely in the upcoming spring and summer months.

  • pam gower

    April 4th, 2013 at 4:24 AM

    As the mom of an autistic child I can completely relate. There are always things that I have to be concerned about that other parents may not have to worry with. Even though my son is like Ben and he knows that he isn’t allowed to go swimming alone, it doesn’t mean that I haven’t had to stop him before from doing just that.
    And the part about knwoing who is watching your children? Al the more important with an autistic child who may be a little more prone to wander off than another peer his age. It is all about setting up boundaries but always knowing who is control of what. There are just too many things that can happen if you take your eye off the situation and relax for even one second.

  • howard.G

    April 4th, 2013 at 2:40 PM

    Having seen my brother’s child grown up with autism I know how tough things can be for the parents. Water is just one thing there are many others parents will need to be mindful about. And while a safety net may bring reassurance it is never going to be a thorough insurance policy. Always being on guard may not be possible but doing the best we can certainly is!

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