Teaching Water Safety to Children With Autism
Because children with autism are more likely to attempt to wander and tend to have an affinity to bodies of water, drowning is the leading cause of death among people with autism who have wandered. It is important for any child to learn how to swim and also how to be safe around bodies of water. "Children diagnosed with autism -- usually between 2 and 3 years of age -- need swimming lessons as soon as possible, even before they start other therapies that will improve the long-term quality of their lives," according to senior author Dr. Guohua Li. professor of epidemiology at Columbia University.
An important part of any autism swimming lesson program should be education about water safety for both the swimmer and their family. Even if a child learns how to swim, water safety behaviors such as always swimming with a buddy and knowing your swimmer’s abilities should be in place. Water safety can be an important but complex topic to teach children with autism. The following are some tips and tricks that can be used to educate your child on being safe around water and to reinforce safe behaviors.
Autism Swimming Lessons: Use a Social Narrative
Social narratives are simple stories that can be used to explain different scenarios to children in a way that they can understand. For many children with autism these are used to explain expectations or routines at school and at home. These narratives give visual support that can be used before going to swim lessons or to the pool. They can also be brought to the pool with your child if they need reminders of the expectations at the pool.
Swimming Classes for Autism: Use a Behavior Chart to Reinforce Safe Behaviors
When your child is participating in swimming lessons or just going to the pool for fun, it can be beneficial to use a reward system to help reinforce the expected safe behaviors. Being able to refer back to a behavior chart such as this one can encourage the safe behaviors and the reward for following these expectations can be something related to swimming such as 15 minutes of extra play time in the pool or picking out a new pool toy!
Autism and Water Safety - Lead by Example
All children, including individuals with autism, look to adults to mirror their behavior. The adults in the child’s life should be sure to follow all water safety rules when in presence of the child. If a child sees their parents breaking pool rules such as running and diving into shallow water, the child may see these behaviors as appropriate.
Autism Swimming Visual: Use A Visual to Review Expectations
Using a diagram like the one of these two swimmers getting ready for swimming lessons can provide reminders of the expectations of swimming lessons. Some of these include holding onto the wall for safety and listening to the swim teacher. This chart can also be used during a swimming lesson to remind the swimmer of the safe behaviors that are expected.
Use Consistent Language
If the swim lesson instructor and caregivers of the child with autism are consistent in the language that they use to reinforce following the rules, the child may be more likely to follow them. It is important that the instructor and caregiver communicate about the words they want to use to communicate the expectations. Repetition is key in teaching new behaviors and using the same words over and over will hopefully help to make these behaviors a habit for the child. Here are some ways to simplify the language used for an autistic child.
- Instead of the instructor saying “no running”, the child’s mother saying “slow down” and the child’s father saying “walk”, all of the adults involved in the child’s swimming instruction can agree to say “walk please” when the child is running near the pool.
- Instead of the child’s grandmother saying “wait for me before you get in” and the instructor saying “remember, don’t get in the pool alone”, everyone can agree to say “wait for your swimming buddy” if the child tries to get in the pool before the adult is ready.
Learning water safety and how to swim are important skills for children with autism to reduce the autism drowning risk. There are many benefits of swimming for children with autism and with the involvement of the family in the learning of water safety, swimming can be a fun and safe activity for children with asd. At Sunsational Swim School, your child will be enrolled in private lessons so your swim instructor can tailor an individualized swim lesson plan for your child!
Melanie Watt’s bio:
Swim Instructor in Baltimore, MD
Hi my name is Melanie and I've been teaching swim lessons and coaching swim teams for eight years! I have experience teaching infants as young as 6 months all the way up to adults. I also have extensive experience working with swimmers with special needs. I have a degree in health sciences and I am currently finishing up my master’s degree in occupational therapy. I love teaching swimming because I love seeing progress whether it be being comfortable putting your face in the water or learning a new stroke!