Autism and Water Safety

With headlines over the weekend about a seven-year-old boy with Autism drowning in a neighbor’s pool in Seminole, the Pinellas Autism Project would like to share the following tips for keeping kids safe around water.

Kids with Autism drown at about twice the rate of neurotypical kids; and in most cases drownings are caused by a lack of swimming skills once they enter the water.

Most municipalities and YMCA’s in Pinellas County offer “adaptive swimming lessons” for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The lessons have a low teacher-to-student ratio and the instructors meet the students where their abilities begin.

“Some people with Autism have sensory issues that challenge their ability to learn water safety,” says Matt Wiseman, executive director of the Pinellas Autism Project. “Water temperature, the feel of wet clothing, having enough and the right kinds of towels — these are all things to consider when beginning swimming lessons for a person with Autism.”

The key, Wiseman says, is to start slow and focus on having fun.

“Lesson one might be dangling their feet in the water or splashing,” he says. “Unfortunately, some kids are introduced to water before they get the Autism diagnosis, and no one anticipates their sensory issues, which can lead to a behavior meltdown.”

“Swimming lessons are a big part of our summer camp,” Wiseman says. “We have a few kids who had an uncle do the old ‘throw them in the pool trick.’ And now they are fearful. We work with these kids to help them get past their fear and learn to swim.

At a minimum, Wiseman says, kids with Autism need the ability to dog paddle to the side of a pool and lift themselves out. Getting out takes practice. Many kids with Autism have low upper body strength.

“Making it a game, and making it fun is the key to getting the child to practice.” Wiseman says. “A reward after a successful lesson helps motivate the child. The reward could be anything from ice cream to screen time. Find what the child likes and create a game they can win.”

Once a child develops safety skills and has a positive relationship to water, the next set of challenges also require some thought and consideration.

“Some kids love the water and swimming becomes a reward for them.” Wiseman says. With these kids, you have to make sure that they are supervised in the pool. Kids with Autism are very intelligent, and they know how to get what they want even though they may not be able to express it. If a child with Autism wants to go swimming and he knows there is a pool at the neighbor’s house, that child may find a way to sneak to the neighbor’s yard creating a dangerous situation.”

Wiseman says perimeter security in the home is important for kids with Autism. Alarms, locks, video — these are all security measures to consider. For kids who wander, there are GPS devices that alert parents when a child is on the move. Some families have therapy dogs who help a child with Autism stay out of danger.

“I encourage every parent of a special needs child to create a safety plan. Think about where you live. Is the perimeter secure? What are the dangers? Are you in an evacuation zone? Where will you go? What comfort items will your child need if you evacuate or find yourself at the doctor’s office? Have a go bag with clothes, comfort items and a basic first aid kit. Include yourself, too. Your clothing could get soiled and having an extra shirt in your car can save the day.”

Finally, even if your child with Autism has a safe, positive relationship with water. Never leave them alone. Wiseman says that about a third of kids with Autism also have seizures. Seizures in the water are obviously dangerous.

“Kids are kids, regardless of their abilities,” Wiseman says. It may take some work to help a child with Autism develop a safe and fun relationship to water, but it also can create a wonderful fitness activity that can last a lifetime. If a child is afraid of water and resists swimming, behavioral professionals can help. Go slow, be patient. Swimming is a natural thing. Anyone can learn to do it safely.”

About the Pinellas Autism Project: Launched in April 2016, the Pinellas Autism Project serves families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder and other neurodevelopmental challenges. PAP offers support groups for parents and siblings; holiday and summer camps for kids; advocacy for children with schools and insurance; and support for finding medical and behavioral services. PAP is a 501(C)3 organization funded by donations and service fees. To learn more, contact Executive Director Matt Wiseman by calling 727-483-1305 or emailing