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POAC Autism Services

Eliminating Drowning in Our Lifetime – The Leading Cause of Death for Children with Autism

Water safety is vitally important for everyone, but an even greater concern for individuals on the autism spectrum.  The numbers are tragic- 1,200 children drown each year in our country with an additional 7,000 children winding up in the Emergency Room due to near drowning incidents.  In fact, drowning is the number one cause of death for all children age 5 and under.  But for children on the autism spectrum, drowning is the number one cause of death for children age 14 and under.

Let Me Be Very Clear:


Let us wrap our heads around that for a moment.  We can eliminate drowning in our lifetime, simply by changing our habits, what we do, and the rules that we follow around water.

Let us also consider the fact that nearly 50% of everyone on the autism spectrum will elope or wander sometime during their lifetime. This means they will go missing from a safe location. Because of this we have resources and information on our website to greatly reduce the risk of elopement and wandering for your child.  You are not alone.

While drowning and elopement are often interconnected, they are two distinct risks.  This article will specifically address how to prevent drowning, injury and death from water hazards in your home and in the community.

Let’s start with some common misconceptions and myths about drowning. Create a picture in your mind of someone who is drowning. What does it look like? What does it sound like? Do you see a lot of waiving of arms and flailing? Do you hear splashing and screams for help? Is the person all alone in a large pool or body of water? This brings us to our first misconception.

Misconception One:

“My child is safe because I am always near by when they are in the pool.”

Nearly half of all parents believe that if a child was drowning, they would hear it and see it. The fact is that most children who drown in a pool are within a few feet of an adult.

The Instinctive Drowning Response—so named by Francesco A. Pia, Ph.D., is what people do to avoid actual or perceived suffocation in the water. And it does not look like most people expect. There is very little splashing, no waving, and no yelling or calls for help of any kind.

No screaming. Drowning people cannot breathe, and breathing is required for calling out for help. No waving. When drowning begins, people instinctively press downwards against the water to try and prop their bodies towards the surface. No control. Instincts take over when drowning, meaning people lose control of their muscles and cannot wave for help or paddle towards safety. In 10 percent of those cases, an adult will actually watch the child die without realizing it.

Misconception Two:

“My child is too young to learn how to swim.”

In fact, The American Academy of Pediatrics supports formal swimming lessons as early as one year of age. Statistics compiled by the USA Swimming Foundation prove that when you enroll a child in formal swimming lessons, it reduces their risk of drowning by 88%.

Misconception Three:

“The lifeguard will watch my child.”

The lifeguard is there to enforce the rules, keep people safe, and to respond if something happens, but they can’t watch every child. We can’t put the safety of our children solely on the lifeguard. It’s up to us as parents and caregivers to ensure that our children are safe. What about pool parties? Drownings at pool parties are swift and silent, and usually take place with adults standing just feet away from the pool. More adults is not necessarily better. Everyone thinks someone is watching and at any particular moment, there may be no one watching.  We need a specified “Water Watcher” at every pool party. More about Water Watchers later.

Misconception Four:

“My child knows how to swim so they are safe.”

We need to embrace the notion that our children are “safer” rather than “safe.” You always want to ask yourself, “Is there risk involved? How can I reduce the risk for my child?” Layers of protection are needed.

Misconception Five:

“I can solely rely on water wings to teach my child to swim.” 

Most water safety advocates do not recommend them because they give the child a false sense of security. Children may feel very confident in the pool with water wings, but when a child falls into a pool, it is usually without their water wings.

Misconception Six:

“I don’t need a gate around my pool if my backyard is fenced.” 

Having a fenced yard is a great step toward keeping others from getting in and drowning. But anyone who comes out of your house into the backyard is vulnerable. You need a secondary fence around the pool with a latching gate. The adds another layer of protection.

Misconception Seven:

“I can run inside just for a minute to get the phone.” 

It can take less than a minute to drown.  Prepare everything you need in advance so you can have your eyes on your child at all times. If you forgot it, leave it until your child is safely out of the pool or tub.

Pretty scary so far, right? Don’t worry, there are many things we can do to reduce all these risks and keep our children safe from drowning.

The A, B, C, D, and E of Water Safety

A is for Adult.

Children should never have access to any form of water, including but not limited to pool, spa, bathtub, without an adult who has eye-to-eye contact with them.  Watch kids when they are in or around water. Keep young children and weak swimmers within arm’s reach of an adult. Make sure more experienced swimmers are with a partner every time. Your older child may say, “Mom, I’m just taking a quick dip.” Even if they know how to swim, they should never swim alone.

As mentioned earlier, at pool events designate a “Water Watcher.” When there are several adults present, choose one to be responsible for watching children in or near the water for a certain period of time, such as 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, select another adult to be the Water Watcher. This person cannot be on the phone or otherwise distracted. Pool Safely has an entire free program including information and a free lanyard for the designated water watcher.

B is for Barrier.

Barriers such as fences should be at least 4 ft high with self-closing, self-latching gates. This applies to in-ground, above ground, and portable pools. Children need to know how important barriers are and to respect them. Even if your home is fenced, your pool should also have a fence. If it does not, make sure your home does not have a pet door as children have been known to use them to get out and access the pool. Again, you want layers of protection including fence, pool covers, and pool alarms.

C is for Swim Class.

Every child with autism needs to know how to swim- not most, all.  You need an instructor experienced with working with children with autism.  So how do you find an instructor? There are lots of ways. Ask your local support group or special needs PTA. Use Google as a starting point but call and verify that the staff have experience with children with autism. YMCAs are also a great source of lessons for children.

Make sure kids learn these 5 water survival skills.

  • Step or jump into water over their head and return to the surface.
  • Turn around in the water and orient to safety.
  • Float or tread water.
  • Combine breathing with forward movement in the water.
  • Exit the water.

It’s also important that parents and caregivers learn to swim. Studies show if the parent can’t swim- most likely their children will have no swimming skills. It’s also vitally important for every parent to know CPR. The Red Cross offers classes.

D is for Drains and Device Safety.

Pool drains are dangerous to all swimmers. Children should never swim near pool or hot tub drains. The suction can be intense and impossible to escape and has caused drowning of adults and children. In 2007 changes were made to codes for swimming pools to include anti-entrapment drains.

However, the life expectancy for drains is less that of hot water heaters. Inspect them often and teach children to avoid drains and to tell an adult if they see a broken or loose drain cover. Children should NOT return to the pool until the drain cover has been replaced. There are products that can help increase drain safety such as Safety Vacuum Release Systems, duel drain systems, and automatic pump shut-off systems. Pool Safely has great information and resources for drain safety.

E is for Emergency Equipment and Emptying.

These are some very basic and easy steps you can take to increase safety.

  • Emergency equipment such as a telephone and life preserver should be in the pool area and readily available in an emergency.
  • As mentioned above, make sure to have an emergency shut off for the pump if someone gets stuck on drain.
  • Be sure to empty child pools immediately after use and store them upside down.
  • Empty all toys out of pool and store them away from the pool area as they can attract children.
  • Install alarms on gates to pool, in pool itself, and any doors into the back yard. I prefer subsurface alarms as they tested better.
  • When not in use empty water from sinks, tubs, and buckets in the home.

In addition to everything we talked about, there are a few more important pool safety strategies. First, if you can’t find your child, check the pool before anything else. If they are hiding in a closet, you have some time to find them, but if they are in the pool, time is very limited so start there. Second, before your kids go in the pool, make sure that long hair is tied up securely to protect from drain entanglement. Do this is part of the outside preparations you already do like putting on sunscreen.

For boating, 84% of drowning victims in boating accidents were not wearing alife vest. If you are boating, make sure your kids wear life vests on the boat. If you are swimming off the boat, teach children that swimming in open water is different from swimming in a pool. Explain things like currents, tides, and other hazards.

In the home, follow this water safety check list:

  • Identify the water risks around your home- pools-including inflatable or plastic pools and buckets, and bathtubs/showers.
  • Teach children how to adjust the water temperature so it doesn’t burn, how to enter and exit a shower properly, how to put soap away so the next person doesn’t slip on it, and how to hang up their towel.
  • Depending on the child- consider lowering the temp on the hot water heater to 120 degrees. They come standard at 140 degrees from the manufacturer- the difference is 2 minutes to get a burn at 140 degrees vs 10 minute to get same burn at 120 degrees.

Much of the information for this article was gleaned from two outstanding sources:

These sites have Full Water Safety Curricula, Trainings, Educational Materials for parents, teachers, and aquatic professionals. In addition, they have apps and videos geared for younger children.   All this is FREE. They are a wealth of information so please check them out along with all the other safety resources provided in POAC’s Safety Section.

Gary Weitzen

POAC Executive Director

Gary Weitzen, the Executive Director of POAC Autism Services, also holds a certified law enforcement instructor title in New Jersey and has 20 years of experience in risk management. Besides managing POAC, he’s spent 15 years teaching life skills to adults with autism. A notable autism advocate, Gary has been featured in major media networks and has a son with autism, Christopher.

Office Address:

POAC Autism Services
1989 Route 88
Brick, NJ 08724



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