Home' Splash Magazine : SPLASH Feb-Mar 2017 Contents Drowning is the leading cause of death among children with autism spectrum
disorder, accounting for an astounding 90 per cent of deaths. In this article, Erika
Gleeson, clinical director of Autism Swim, discusses why these statistics are so high,
and looks at what can be done to reduce them.
utism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong
neurodevelopment disorder, which is
categorised by the following (excerpted from
• Persistent deficits in social communication and
social interaction across multiple context;
• Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour,
interests, or activities;
• Symptoms must be present in the early
• Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment
in social, occupational, or other important areas of
• These disturbances are not better explained by
intellectual disability or global developmental delay.
ASD affects almost 230,000 people in Australia; 64,400
people were estimated to have the condition in 2009.
Drowning is the leading cause of death among children
with ASD (University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, 2014).
According to the National Autism Association,
accidental drowning accounted for approximately 90
per cent of total US deaths reported in children with
ASD ages 14 and younger in 2009 to 2011. Statistics in
Australia cannot be found; however it is hypothesised
that the percentages would be comparable.
The question is, why are the statistics so high?
Reasons for high drowning rate
Wandering is the tendency for an individual to try to
leave the safety of a responsible person’s care or a safe area,
which has the potential to result in harm or injury. It is
often referred to as absconding, elopement or fleeing.
It is not uncommon for individuals with ASD to
become overstimulated by crowds, noises and a range of
other stimuli, hence escaping this by retreating to another
environment. Many individuals with ASD gravitate
towards bodies of water because they associate water with
alleviating many of their sensory needs. Research indicates
that nearly 50 per cent of children with ASD attempt to
escape from a safe environment, which is a rate nearly four
By Erika Gleeson
times higher than children without autism. Fifty-eight
per cent of parents of ASD children report wandering/
elopement as the most stressful of ASD behaviours
(National Autism Association).
In addition to drowning, wandering brings with
it other high risk factors, including but not limited
to exposure to the elements; dehydration; falls;
hypothermia; traffic injuries; encounters with strangers;
and encounters with law enforcement.
Difficulties with generalisation
Generalisation refers to ability to transfer skills and
information learned in one setting to other settings, people
and activities. Sixty-eight per cent of the individuals with
ASD who represent the 90 per cent figure above, died
in a nearby pond, lake, creek or river. So although many
individuals with ASD may have had swimming lessons
and developed swimming skills in pools in the past, they
may experience difficulties in generalising this skill across
different environments (lakes for instance).
Lack of specialised ser vices
Many swimming teachers may have undertaken
additional training in “special needs”. However, until
recently, there has been a severe lack of specialised
training specific to ASD and swimming. There is a need
for teachers to understand the ways in which individuals
with ASD process information and acquire new skill
sets, so the sessions can be individualised and tailored
to the strengths of the individual. There is also a need to
incorporate components of water safety into the lessons.
Difficulties with perceiving danger
The risk of drowning increases with the individual’s ASD
severity. Many individuals with ASD have difficulties
with anticipating danger and judging risk, which is
exacerbated if they also have an intellectual disability.
Lack of awareness
The data also showed that only 50 per cent of parents
of children with ASD have received advice about
wandering prevention from a professional. Sadly, many
in our community are unaware that wandering is even
an issue or that drowning is such a high risk factor for
individuals with ASD.
Until recently, there
has been a severe
lack of specialised
training specific to
ASD and swimming
Water safety and
autism spectrum disorder
February/March 2017 SPLASH! 51
Links Archive SPLASH Dec-Jan 2017 SPLASH Apl-May 2017 Navigation Previous Page Next Page