How to Help Autistic Children Stay Safe in and Around the Pool
During the heat of the summer, many families travel to the beach, visit lake houses, spend long days in the swimming pool and splash around in a kiddie pool. As the season comes to an end, we urge caregivers to remember that water safety should not.
This is not an easy subject for us to talk about, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drowning is a leading cause of death in children. It is important to note that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have an even greater risk around the water than their neurotypical peers, mainly due to some of the challenges associated with ASD. For instance, elopement, trouble following directions, communication challenges, and limited situational awareness can all increase the concern. Others have an affinity to bodies of water and may feel the need to touch the water as a calming effect.
Here is the good news: there are preventative ways to keep our kiddos safe around the water, and Hopebridge Autism Therapy Centers can help.
Teaching Water Safety to Children with Autism
We don’t intend to scare you, but drowning can happen quickly, quietly and anywhere there is water. In many cases, these tragedies occur at unexpected times when a family does not intend to go swimming. This is why we feel it is so important to discuss water safety – rather than just swim safety – even as many families begin to trade in their swimsuits for sweaters.
To provide advice for parents whose children may come into contact with pools, oceans, canals and other bodies of water year-round, we turned to Hopebridge Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) Amanda Durma from our therapy center in Akron, Ohio. As a former lifeguard who now works with kids on the spectrum, Amanda offers an invaluable perspective on this topic for our families.
“Water safety not only teaches children fundamental skills to prevent an incident of drowning, but it also encourages independence in the water. This independence can help children with autism feel comfortable swimming and playing everywhere from a pool, to the bathtub, to the backyard, all while giving parents a little more peace of mind,” said Amanda.
Autism therapy programs that include applied behavior analysis (ABA therapy), including Hopebridge’s 360 Care model, can lay the groundwork for water safety or support children, as well as families who are already working on many of the practices. For example, ABA therapy skills like walking with an adult, understanding safety directives and transitioning away from a fun activity can all transfer to water safety settings.
“As part of my center’s ‘Fun Fridays’ this summer, our center incorporated some water play opportunities, including a small, shallow kiddie pool. Although we didn’t fill it deep enough for our kids to swim, it was a great opportunity to teach safe water play,” Amanda shared with us.
While working as a lifeguard, swim instructor and camp counselor at a community recreation center, Amanda was able to work with children with special needs. These are her top tips and takeaways for parents in and around the pool.
Expose children with autism to water at a young age. Introducing kids to water early in life increases their comfort and confidence around it, especially for those who may be nervous. Before getting in the pool or visiting somewhere near the water, prepare for your outing by using visuals to explain the rules. At this time, it is important to emphasize the dangers associated with water. Then, consider engaging in safe water play at home to put the rules into practice. You can do this in the bathtub or a kiddie pool if you do not have a full-size pool.
Invest in swim lessons. As a former lifeguard and swim instructor, Amanda told us that there are rudimentary skills that are important for all children to have in order to ensure safe independence in the water. These basic survival skills include the ability to roll over and float on their backs, swimming to a pool’s edge, and exiting a pool. “If you are interested in having children take swim lessons, reach out to your community recreation center. I have seen classes teach infants to swim to a pool’s edge, and I’ve personally helped 7-year-olds learn to float on their back. There are also organizations like YMCA that offer lessons specifically for individuals with special needs. No matter the child’s age, it’s never too late to learn!” said Amanda.
Ensure proper supervision in and around the water. No matter what setting your child is swimming or wading in – even if it’s a kiddie pool or a bathtub – proper supervision is key. Adult supervision at all times is imperative, but a parent or another caregiver in the water is ideal because they not only have a better grasp of their child’s swimming skills, but are also able to quickly assist their child within an arm’s reach. And the supervision doesn’t stop at the pool. Amanda urges, “Supervision out of the water is just as important as supervision in the water. Whether you’re at a pool, lake or even in the backyard, monitoring and encouraging safe play anywhere near the water is the key prevention to drowning and potentially life-threatening injuries.”
Be patient with your child. If you are just getting started, understand that this is a new experience for your child. Even if it is not new, it is still important to be patient. Some kids are not used to the colder water temperatures, might not be comfortable with splashing, or could be overwhelmed depending on whether the environment is crowded or noisy. Sensory sensitivities and anxiety can increase the risk for wandering and lower children’s caution around the water, so give them the space and time they need while never letting them out of your sight.
Be prepared to take breaks. It can be helpful to take breaks so kids can remain strong swimmers and don’t get too worn out while at the pool or beach. Plus, it can help to prepare for breaks and other transitions in advance, since most open swim times include a rest period. Check with the pool staff on these details to plan your day and help remind children when a break is coming up.
Secure bodies of water when they’re not in use. Knowing how to swim and having adults near the pool is important, but water safety doesn’t stop there. Don’t allow your child to gain unsupervised access to water by adding layers of protection with pool gates, locked doors and/or alarms. For instance, if you are visiting a family member inside their home and there is a pool or pond in the backyard, don’t assume everything is safe. Make sure doors are locked and keep an eye on your child to make sure they don’t wander to the backyard without you.
Don’t hesitate to ask questions. Call your local pool if you have any questions or concerns. Many should be able to provide you with extra information to help you plan your outing. “While I worked as a lifeguard, visiting during less busy times was the common trend that I saw amongst parents of children with special needs. They often found it was easier to focus on their children, safety and fun when there were fewer patrons and programs occurring in the pool,” said Amanda.
Have fun! When it comes to being safe in the water, Amanda reminds parents to have fun with their children! “From my experiences watching families in the pool, those who were the safest were the ones playing together.”
In addition to ensuring safety around the water, implementing these tips can help children build courage, trust, strength, balance, communication and independence, plus provide new opportunities for play and relaxation.
Enhance Your Child’s Safety Awareness Skills at Hopebridge
We want to help you with your goals around water safety. Our clinicians can incorporate safety awareness skills into your child’s autism therapy program to support your efforts in and around the water.
If this or another area of safety is one of your concerns, reach out to one of our centers across the nation so we can work with your kiddo to build the skills they need to live a safe, independent and happy life.
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