Expert Water Safety Advice When Your Child Has Autism

For many families, gearing up for the summer is an exciting endeavor!   As the warmer weather begins, there are families opening pools, and there may be trips to a lake or the ocean.  While being active and outdoors is definitely something to be encouraged, it can also come with some increased risks for children with autism.  In fact, for some such families, planning for the summer can be a source of tremendous stress.

Expert Water Safety Advice When Your Child Has Autism

Many children with autism have a propensity to wander and end up encountering dangerous situations.  Did you know that drowning is one of the leading causes of death for children with autism? And whether families are traveling to new and far off places, or whether they are staying at home, there may be an increased risk of drowning in the warmer summer months.  This article describes some of the things you can do as a parent to help reduce the risk of drowning for your child with autism:

Tip #1 Assess the Risk

No matter where you are or where you are going to be, the first thing you should do is assess your child’s risk or the potential for increased risk.  Once you know what you are dealing with, you may begin to develop a customized plan to reduce the risk for your child’s unique needs and situation.  If you have a child that has a propensity to wander and leave the area, it is imperative that you safety-proof your home.  The best way to do this is to assess for vulnerabilities.  This means walking through your home and identifying any exit points that are not safeguarded.  Have a paper and pencil handy and write down any window or door that may be used to exit the building.

If you are staying elsewhere, make sure you get an inventory of any and all entry and exit points that are accessible from your location.  Once you have identified the potential exit locations, the next step is to identify the other risks in the immediate environment, as well as those that may be close by.  For example, if you are going away to a hotel, find out if there is a pool in the building and where it is located.  If you are going to a friends or relative’s home, find out if: 1) there is a body of water close by, 2) whether they have a pool there, and 3) if any of the neighbors have one.  Once you have gathered all of your information, you can begin to develop a plan to help reduce the risk of your child with autism drowning.

Tip #2 Be Proactive

Supervision is a necessary component in reducing the risk of your child’s encountering a dangerous situation.  It is not possible to be vigilant at all times on your own, so it is a good idea to enlist other volunteers, such as friends and family, to take turns supervising your child.   Have a plan for who will take certain blocks of time so everyone is on the same page as far as expectations go.  If your child has a tendency to go to bodies of water, then it would be a good idea to teach him/her how to swim.  There are agencies that offer swimming lessons that are geared to children with special needs.

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Ensure that there are locks and alarms on all entry and exit points that were identified in your initial home or environment assessment.  Make sure that pools and bodies of water are secured with a fence or a gate.  Purchase a pool alarm that sounds when something hits the water’s surface.   You can get a wristband for your child that, upon immersion under water, alerts you.

Plan ahead when traveling; there are portable versions that you can bring with you to a new location.  You can also choose hotels that do not have a pool, or select a room with no balcony.  When you go, make sure you tell staff about your situation so that they are prepared to respond in an emergency.  Bring a recent photo that can be distributed to anyone searching for your child and a tip sheet outlining his/her areas of need and strengths.  For example, you might want to list how to communicate with your child, what he/she responds to, and if your child has a favorite song or item that can be used to lure him/her away from danger.  Check out for more resources.

Tip #3 Empower Your Child With Safety Skills

Teaching your child with autism how to swim may ensure safety while first responders are locating him/her. However, there are also other skills that could help to reduce his/her risk of drowning.  Following simple safety instructions, such as ‘come here’ or ‘stop,’ are critical.  The key with these, though, is to make sure your child learns to listen when it matters most, such as when he/she is heading toward an enticing, but dangerous, situation.  Can your child stop and come back to you?  This requires practice and is done systematically.  Start with the least difficult situation and gradually make it more and more challenging, rewarding along the way to really strengthen that skill.  Other safety skills to teach include: 1) asking permission to leave (e.g., a building or your supervision) 2) how to wait for desired items 3) when it is OK to swim (e.g., not along) and 4) how to exchange personal information (e.g., his/her name/address, whether it be verbally or with another form of communication).

These are just a few of tips and safety skills you would want to teach your child.  When, where, and how to start will depend on your unique child’s areas of need and strengths.  A local Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) can help you with this.  I hope you have a wonderful and safe summer!

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This article was featured in Issue 63 – Keeping Our Kids Safe

Sarah Kupferschmidt

Sarah Kupferschmidt realized that Behavior Analysis was her calling when she first started working with children with autism in 1999. Once she discovered its effectiveness and the impact it had in helping children with autism and their families, it inspired her to pursue a Masters of Arts in Psychology with a specialization in Behavior Analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno. She is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).  Not only does Sarah enjoy working directly with children with autism, she’s also very passionate about empowering others with the most effective tools to teach children with autism.  She has been training staff and clinicians and coaching parents on how to do this since she started.  She is also passionate about the science and research behind the tools that she advocates.  In partnership with Brock University, Sarah is currently involved in a research project that involves the evaluation of a parent-training package that will help empower parents with tools to teach a child with autism important safety skills. She has been a Part-Time or Adjunct Professor since 2005, teaching ABA courses.  Sarah also regularly presents workshops to parents, therapists, and educators on a variety of topics related to teaching or working with individuals with autism.  Sarah is a Huffington Post Contributor, a TEDx speaker, and was named Top Safety Contributor for Autism Parenting Magazine in 2014 and Top Behavior Analysis Writer for 2015. Visit her site: