Dangers of drowning heightened for children with autism

Data shows kids with autism are 160 times more likely to die from drowning than their neurotypical peers.
Published: Oct. 14, 2022 at 10:26 AM CDT
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MONROE, La. (KNOE) - Research shows children with autism are 160 times more likely to die from drowning than neurotypical children.

“So like you said that’s a heartbreaking fact but it’s things families need to know about.”

Kristen Mardis with the Autism Society of North Louisiana says that statistic is why it’s so important to get your children into swimming lessons at an early age.

In the ArkLaMiss there are bayous, lakes, and pools, so being able to swim is crucial, especially for those with autism. Mardis says accidental drownings now account for 91% of deaths among autistic children 14 and under.

“Oftentimes autistic individuals are attracted to water. That’s why in the event someone on the spectrum has gone missing first responders are trained to check the water first,” explains Mardis. “There oftentimes can be a reduced sense of safety awareness or danger awareness so that can contribute to those risk factors.”

And she says the risk of elopement, or children walking away from an otherwise safe environment, is another risk factor that could cause kids to find themselves near the water. She says at least 50% of autistic children will elope at some point in their life.

“[Even if] you’ve done all the things right with the barriers, with the supervision, in the event that your child finds themselves alone in the water the only thing that’s going to save them is knowing how to swim,” says Mardis. “But having locks on their doors, a fence around their pool, supervision all of the time, things like that to decrease the likelihood that the child will find themselves near water.”

It does take a village, so if you have a pool at your house make sure you take the proper precautions in case a child ever did find themselves near your pool.

While swimming lessons are the first and most crucial step, it can be scary for kids on the spectrum.

“But it can be harder for families to access that because things that might work for a neurotypical child in swim lessons may not be appropriate for an autistic child,” says Mardis. “Things like group lessons that’s very common, but for an autistic child that might not be very supportive because it can be very loud very overwhelming things like that.”

That’s why she says it’s so important to find the instructor and lesson type that’s right for you.

“From getting in the water, the different temperatures, the heat, water splashing on your face, the light bouncing off the water, there’s so much going on that they might need to go at their own pace.”

Infant Swimming Resource classes take a different approach than typical lessons. ISR teaches lessons for kids from 6 months old to 6 years.

“Not typical swim lessons at all, I hate to even call it swim lessons because they do learn to swim and they do learn to float but it’s so much more than that. It’s a lot of education to the parents as well...we always get the parents in the water so they can practice effectively with the child outside of lessons,” says ISR Instructor Lori Barnidge.

She says they have over 50 different protocols to work with any kid.

“They might have asthma, and so we would adjust their lessons based on that. They might have down syndrome. We have a protocol for down syndrome,” explains Barnidge. “You name it, they’ve seen it and they’ve thought about it and they’ve created a protocol for that particular child to help guide the child’s lessons.”

Barnidge says she believes the ISR approach yields better outcomes.

“Last session I had a student with down syndrome and her physical therapist was working on getting her to walk. Well by the time she finished the 6 weeks of ISR just the extra activity, the extra muscle involvement with swimming actually sped up her progress with physical therapy and she was walking.”

Autism is impacting more families, the CDC says one in 44 children is now diagnosed with autism.

The Autism Society of North Louisiana is having a free ‘Acoustic on the Alley’ event on Oct. 15th. Starting at 4 p.m., vendors and food trucks will be at Alley Park in West Monroe. Live music will begin at 5 p.m. and last at 8 p.m. They advise people to bring their own chairs.