2015-06-24 12.50.17

Weekly Autism Tips for Emergency Responders: Drawn to Water

2015-06-24 12.50.17In my Autism Training courses I teach parents and emergency responders to search water first if a person with Autism goes missing. This includes rivers, pools, lakes, ponds, and even fountains. 91% of deaths of children with Autism are due to drowning.

These are scary statistics. I have a wanderer. When he was three we went to visit family in Florida and he figured out how to unlock all the doors and gates that led to the pool in the back yard. In a flash he was gone and in the water.

My son used to spend hours in the tub and could often be found playing with the hose in the front yard. Toddler time at the neighborhood pool always consisted of him trying to break free of my arms and just GO. It didn’t matter where he was going, he just had to go. Slippery babies are hard to contain as it is!

So, yes, I know that children with Autism are often drawn to pools and other bodies of water. But why? Experts said they find them beautiful and are fascinated by the way light sparkles on the water.

The Autism Society of the Heartland’s Executive Director offers that, “Water is a fixation for them because when they get in the water, it’s like a big hug and it wraps around them. And it can relax them and help with some of those sensory issues that they might have.”

That is consistent with the feedback I hear from many families and children I have worked with, including my own child. It is a soothing escape from the whirlwind of sensory input that often overwhelms them. Unfortunately, an Autistic child’s fascination with water is typically coupled with no sense of fear or perception of danger and can end tragically in the blink of an eye.

As parents, we do our best to protect our children – being prepared for emergencies, knowing the lay of the land and all bodies of water surrounding home and school, installing additional locks and alarms at home on doors and windows, and of course, seeking swimming lessons.

As responders, you don’t know how involved and tenacious parents and caregivers are. You don’t know what precautions are in place and if they’ve been bested by a clever and curious child. All you know is there is a child (or adult) missing.

The National Autism Association states the following information for first responders:

  • Nearly half of children with autism engage in wandering behavior
  • Increased risks are associated with autism severity
  • More than one third of children with autism who wander/elope are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number
  • Accidental drowning accounts for approximately 91% of lethal outcomes
  • Other dangers include dehydration; heat stroke; hypothermia; traffic injuries; falls; physical restraint; encounters with strangers

Because many individuals with ASD go directly to water, it’s important to treat each case as CRITICAL. Remember that every person with Autism is different, so utilize input from the child or adult’s immediate caregiver and keep search efforts ongoing. Some children with autism have survived as many as six days without adequate food or water.

autism summer safety tips

Summer Safety Tips for Parents of Children with Autism


And the livin’ is easy…

Well, that doesn’t always ring true for parents of Autistic children! Safety concerns become heightened when the weather turns nice and schedules are more lax.

Having an Autistic son has brought things I’d never before imagined having to be prepared for into my experience. Here are some safety tips I’ve pulled from my own experiences and some great ideas from May Institute that can help you be prepared so you can relax and enjoy the summer with your child.

Water safety

Drowning is the number one cause of death in autistic children. Many children with Autism are powerfully drawn to the water but do not understand the dangers.

Always be within arm’s reach of the child when he or she is in or around any open water. Be sure to drain bathtubs and other small containers of water when you are finished using them – a child can drown in an inch of water. Put safety locks on toilet seats and hot tubs and monitor or cover landscape ponds if you can.

Teach your child to swim as early as possible. If they struggle with traditional swimming strokes, they can learn a water survival technique called drownproofing, which will help them stay afloat until help arrives.

Wandering prevention

Children with ASD are likely to act impulsively, including running away or wandering.

Use deadbolt locks, keep doors and windows locked and install an alarm on doors. Motion detectors and window bars may also be appropriate.

For children who respond well to visual cues, consider placing STOP or DO NOT ENTER signs on all doors that open to the outside. These can be powerful reminders.

You can find seven more vital tips for wandering prevention, including the use of QR Code apparel in this article.

Getting your information to emergency responders

If it is available in your area, register your family on Smart911. Whether an Autistic child has wandered, is having a medical emergency, or a behavioral emergency, it is vital to communicate that they have Autism and understand the response may require very specific actions.

Participate in local community safety fairs where there are opportunities to meet actual police, firefighters, and emergency response professionals that work in your community in an environment that is friendly and fun. This may increase the chances that your child will respond positively to first responders in the future.

If available, submit a disability indicator form to your local law enforcement agency to help alert law enforcement that a person residing at that address may require special assistance during an emergency. You can also create a more detailed handout with information about your child and have printed and electronic formats available so you can readily provide it to search and rescue personnel in the event of an incident.

It’s also a good idea to give your neighbors a handout with a picture of your child and emergency contact information. It should describe effective ways to approach, communicate with, and calm your child. Ask them to contact you immediately if they see your child outside your home or property.

How about you? What summer safety tips work in your home? Share by commenting below or posting to the SOA Facebook page!