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Water Safety Tips for Kids with Autism

Kathleen Bailey Stengel

With springtime upon us, 

it won’t be long before the temperature heats up—leading many families to make a beeline to their nearest pool or lake. And while the thought of days spent relaxing by the water may trigger excitement and anticipation, parents of children with autism must take extra measures to ensure their child stays safe during warm weather months.

According to Autism Speaks, children with autism are often attracted to water sources such as pools, ponds, and lakes—and alarmingly, drowning is the most common fatal injury among children with autism. That doesn’t mean, though, that you must avoid water completely—instead, always supervise your children and heed the tips below, and you and your child will be well on your way to soaking up the sun safely.

1. Enroll your child in swim lessons – Knowing your child can be comfortable navigating through water on their own results in peace of mind for everyone. Before their first day, consider taking them for a tour of the facility where they’ll be taking lessons, which might help them become accustomed to the sights and sounds they’ll encounter. Tip: Many YMCA locations offer swim classes designed specifically for children with special needs.

2. Set specific water safety rules – Children with autism can be taught simple rules using visual cues and repetition. Often, rules will dictate behavior—and in this case, you can use that to your advantage. Establish water safety rules (do not go into the water unless a parent is with you) and practice them with your child to make sure they fully understand them.

3. Keep it fun – Like anyone, your child might get tired of constantly practicing only the lessons they’ve learned in swim class. To encourage your child to continue strengthening their swim skills with shaping and reinforcement, incorporate some fun and games when they’re in the water with you. Beach ball races and balloon toss are just a few options to get you started. Another essential: Remember to celebrate each milestone—no matter how big or small—your child makes in the water.

4. Incorporate visual learning – Visual cues, such as STOP signs, go a long way for some kids with autism when practicing the rules. It is a good idea to display similar signs on all doors that lead to the outdoors. Another idea: Watch a video on water safety with your child, and then discuss the lessons learned afterward or develop a social story with rewards attached for following cues.

5. Foster a trusting environment – Learning a new skill can be scary for anyone—and that’s why it helps to feel like we have someone in the same boat. If your child is scared of the water, it can help to tell them that you’re scared of the water too sometimes. Then, assure your child that the two of you can face your fears together. If they’re scared to stroke, share the experience with them and let them know you will try it out together.

With April being Autism Awareness Month—and the kickoff to warmer weather—now is the perfect time to begin to equip your child with the water safety skills they’ll need throughout their life. Not only will it be rewarding to watch them learn, but the time you’ll spend together in the process is priceless.

Kathleen Bailey Stengel is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Licensed Behavior Specialist and Vice President of Epic Developmental Services (EDS), an Aveanna Healthcare company. EDS provides services for children across an array of developmental disabilities. Ms. Stengel is in charge of quality assurance of all the Epic clinical processes, as well as staff education and development for the EDS team.