Autism and Water Safety

 Autism and Water Safety

It’s 2 a.m. and I hear the bathroom faucet running. On cue, I shriek, “Soaaaaaa! Turn the tap off and come back to bed!”

The culprit is my daughter, Soanirina (“Soa”). She loves running from one bathroom to the next, turning the tap on, giggling as she wiggles her fingers in the running water. As my water-loving imp giggles and feigns returning to bed, seemingly counting the minutes before I turnover, struggling to get back to sleep, she bolts. Back to resuming the water game, this time selecting a different bathroom as her amusement park.

However, though the skyrocketing water bill is a panic-worthy source of alarm—what really keeps me up at night is worrying about her safety around large bodies of water. With accidental drowning accounted as the number one cause of death of children with autism, (according to The National Autism Association) living steps away from the ocean sometimes feels like both a blessing and a curse.

Rockaway Times readers—as an ocean/bayside community—shouldn’t we collectively band together to advocate for local water safety and swimming programs for all of our children?

It is a common belief amongst the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) community that children with autism love water. However, if that’s true then their relationship with water varies as wide as the spectrum.

For example, Soa loves turning on the bathroom faucet to watch the water flow through her fingers. The latest is that she likes to methodically pour water, juice (or any liquid for that matter) from one bottle to the next, or gasp—even in her food plate! However, when visiting the beach, Soa will not get in the ocean beyond splashing her feet.

Juxtapose this to my friend’s over six-foot tall autistic adult son, who is literally a water baby, and dives and floats to his heart’s content in their building’s pool. So, if interest in water is common among people with ASD, what kind of water? Is it still water, flowing, dripping, or swimming? That said, one priority leaves little room for debate: safety. If even there is a remote interest in water, teaching both water safety and swimming skills to autistic children—in fact, children of all ages and abilities—should be a major priority! Just think of the recent fires that devastated residents of Lahaina, a town in west Maui, Hawaii. There are reports about numerous children and seniors, who drowned when they attempted to escape the fires by jumping in the ocean. As local residents on the peninsula and Broad Channel—we can surely relate with Superstorm Sandy.

Also, important to note, while water can be soothing, calming and fun, fatal drowning in ASD children typically occurs in water bodies near the victims’ homes, precipitated by elopement and wandering. A study found that in water-related deaths, children with autism are 160 times as likely to die from drowning as the general pediatric population. These frightening statistics beg the question—why are children with autism so prone to drowning? The likely association is not the water itself, but autistic children’s propensity to wander. These deaths occur quickly; often silently and in as little as one inch of water.

As founder of local autism advocacy nonprofit, Rockaway Beach Autism Families (RBAF), I believe multifaceted intervention programs are urgently needed to reduce the risk of drowning in autistic children. Teaching them how to swim and develop water safety skills from a young age is critical. In a poll on RBAF’s Facebook page about needed local sports programs, overwhelmingly families voted for swimming. Note that water safety and swimming lessons are not the same thing. Water safety describes precautions taken when around any body of water, thus reducing the risk of drowning.

Join RBAF at our monthly family support group meeting today—Thursday, September 28, 7 p.m. at Knights of Columbus (333 Beach 90th Street). Also, stay tuned for info about our upcoming Annual Halloween Beach Treasure Hunt, fundraiser for the autism community in Maui (who were devastated by the fires in Lahaina), and Annual End-of-Year Holiday Party. For more info, visit: Rockaway Beach Autism Families on Facebook/ Instagram.

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