As parents, we always want what is best for our children. This means we have to create a balance between pleasure and safety when planning activities for our children. This is even more important when a child is very young and has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other special needs, as safety planning entails extra planning, organization, supervision, and precautions. It’s important to note not all children understand the concept of danger, and some tend to run away and have a hard time understanding or following the rules.
In this article I plan on giving the advice I wish I received before my son tragically passed away in a drowning accident. I wish to share what I have learned from my experience as it may help other parents better protect their children effectively from drowning.
When an accident happens, it is when you expect it—otherwise, we would certainly avoid them. Safety measures may be put in place, but are they enough? Sometimes these measures can fail or be bypassed by circumstances, unpredictable behavior from your child, or even from unseen events.
I think that it is important to note that research has shown that 90% of children with ASD who die prematurely drowned. Children on the spectrum often ignore danger, like to wander off, and love to play with water, which can become a deadly situation.
It’s also vital to mention even safety measures can fail, such as if you forget to close the pool gate and it doesn’t close automatically. Or when the doorbell rings, you may tell your child to leave the pool so you may answer the door, but there’s no guarantee your child will follow the directions. I suggest putting a note at the door to let people know you will not answer the door as you are supervising at the pool.
Here are some simple steps you can take to increase safety:
1. Always assign someone to supervise kids at the pool
When there is a large gathering, always make sure a specific person is in charge of watching your child. If there are multiple children, you need more eyes to make sure every child is watched properly. Always keep in mind that a special needs child may require more attention from you, so take this into account when planning. Olivier Meunier from the Lifesaving Society said parents often have a false sense of security at a gathering and assume that everybody else is watching the kids, but withou assigning specific people in charge, children can drown.
I remember hearing about accident that happened during a large gathering where a two-year-old girl fell in the pool and drowned. By the time the lifeless body was noticed at the bottom of the pool, it was too late. When someone drowns, they do not scream because all the energy is used in an effort to breathe and try to stay afloat. A very young child may lack the coordination to even attempt or be able to stay afloat.
2. Invest in a pool alarm and/or tracker
I think that a pool alarm and a waterproof GPS tracker is also a very good investment and could really save your child’s life, especially if your child tends to wander off.
3. Teach your child to swim
Even if you don’t have a pool, I strongly recommend swimming lessons as soon as possible as you never know when your child will be near a body of water when you travel or visit with family and friends. There are amazing programs that teach babies to swim and learn how to float. It’s also important your child wear a lifejacket around bodies of water. Children with ASD do not always like to wear them because they can feel constraining, so before planning a trip, make sure that your child can tolerate the safety garments for an extended period of time.
My little boy Raphael had surgery on his ear and was not allowed to wet his ear from the age of two and a half to three and a half because his eardrum was pierced from removing a large cyst (cholesteatoma) in his middle ear. If I could go back, I would have taught him swimming from infancy as it would have certainly saved his life.
4. Discourage playing around the pool
As I look back, I also remember him taking his little sand bucket to retrieve water from the pool to build mud pies in the sandbox and although I was reprimanding him, I never took away that bucket so he continued the behavior. In fact, children should be prevented from retrieving anything from a pool because even a child who may be initially afraid of the water may get too comfortable with leaning over it and accidentally slip, which is exactly what happened to my little boy.
5. Keep water clear
When maintaining your pool, visibility is very important and over-treating the pool water is not a good idea. If you are planning a trip, make sure you have someone who can help maintain your pool because the capsules that are supposed to be sufficient for 8 to 10 days will not last long in a heat wave which dissipates the chlorine much faster which affects clarity.
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6. Connect with your neighbors
I also suggest to families raising children on the spectrum explain specific challenges and concerns with neighbors. For example, make sure they know to reach out to you if your child is seen alone outside. There are also stickers you can get from the fire station for your front door so the fireman knows in an emergency there’s is a child with ASD living there.
7. Re-evaluate dangers regularly
We do not always have all the answers when we raise children, but always trust your instinct and try to see the world from the perspective of your child. It’s vital to pay attention to his/her progress and try to anticipate what could constitute a danger in your home environment as your child can develop new skills quickly, e.g., crawl out of the crib, climb over a gate, or open doors.
8. Hire an expert to check safety
To assess the safety of your pool, I strongly suggest the expert in the field which is the lifesaving society who are the experts and can offer a free home visit to verify your current pool installation or your project if you are looking to install a pool. The lifesaving society also offer training to avoid drowning, CPR classes which are a must when you have small children. You can also check on their website to make general verification about pool safety which may tip you off on improvements you may want to consider to make your pool safer.
While it’s hard to imagine losing your child to a drowning accident, it happens every single year. Sadly in 2015, the year my little boy drowned, there were 67 drownings in Quebec alone. These accidents are 100% avoidable when additional safety measures are in place. Understanding the dangers and taking precautions can be the difference between life and death, so please don’t be a statistic and visit the lifesaving society and have a wonderful and happy summer.
I invite everybody to watch the commemorative video made to honor the memory of my son Raphael David Foster and to give a donation to the lifesaving society.
When you experience child loss, the trauma and pain is like no other. Finding purpose in helping others has become a priority because when you find in this world what needs repair, you have found your life’s mission.
This article was featured in Issue 78 – Back to School Success