Keeping Kids with Autism Safe in the Pool

Children with autism spectrum disorder are all unique; Some may absolutely love water while others may avoid water and show no interest in it. But no matter your child’s interest in water, it is highly recommended that ALL children (with and without autism) develop safety skills related to water such as complying with instructions from adults, staying within allowed areas, only going into water when given permission, and learning to swim if this skill is possible for the child.

Ensure Your Child’s Safety in the Pool

Keeping kids with autism safe in the pool requires some additional considerations due to their sensory sensitivities, potential communication challenges, impulsive behaviors, and the possibility that your child may wander away from caregivers.

Let’s explore some recommendations to ensure your child’s safety in and near the pool.

Supervision

It’s crucial to always have a designated adult supervising the child when they are in or near the pool. This person should be familiar with the child’s needs and behaviors. If your child tends to jump into the water, the supervising adult must be aware of this tendency and maintain a close watch at all times.

Some adults might not expect a child to jump into the water if they don’t know how to swim, leading to potential distractions and missed moments when the child enters the water. This isn’t meant to cause alarm or make you worry about those supervising your child. Instead, it’s recommended to assign a supervising adult who is familiar with your child’s behaviors whenever your child is around water.

Swimming Lessons

If you think it would be beneficial for your child, enroll them in swimming lessons tailored to individuals with special needs. These classes often provide personalized instruction and can help the child learn water safety skills. Swimming lessons are a great way to provide a supervised and structured environment to help your child learn how to be safe in and near water.

Social Stories

Another possible strategy for helping children with autism to be safe in and near a pool is to create social stories or visual schedules to prepare the child for pool time. Include pictures and simple language to explain pool rules and expectations. This will help your child be more familiar with your expectations about how they should behave around water.

A social story is a story with the purpose of teaching a child a specific lesson related to an experience they may have in everyday life. A visual schedule is more of a list of activities that will occur such as “Put on sunscreen. Put on a lifejacket. Get in the pool. Play in the pool for 30 minutes. Get out of the pool. Take the lifejacket off.” You could also include a list of rules related to water safety. You can use pictures or text depending on what works best for your child.

Most, if not all, children benefit from having expectations clearly stated and communicated to them. This makes it easier for them to know for sure what is expected of them, so try to be clear and concise in how you communicate your rules for your child regarding water safety.

Sensory Considerations

Children with autism often have sensory needs that may be different from the experience of neurotypical children. Because of this, it is helpful to be mindful of the child’s sensory sensitivities. Provide your child with swimwear that feels comfortable and consider using earplugs or a swim cap to minimize sensory overload from water and noise. Of course, this is going to be individualized to your child so explore what works best for them.

Communication Tools

If your child uses communication devices or alternative methods to communicate, ensure they have access to these tools while at the pool. This enables them to express their needs and communicate with others. While it may be challenging to keep these devices near the water due to the risk of getting them wet, you can place them close by, outside the pool, within a comfortable and accessible distance.

Clear Boundaries

When it comes to playing in water, such as in a pool, setting clearly defined boundaries is a great way to communicate expectations and ensure safety. Establish and communicate these boundaries to your child using visual cues like fences, signs, or colored tape to mark safe zones. The exact method you choose will depend on the size and depth of the pool.

Buddy System

Another potential idea that could be helpful for your child is to pair the child with a “buddy” who can provide additional support and assistance in the water if needed. This could be a sibling, friend, a trained volunteer, parent, or another adult. Having someone in the water with your child who is specifically identified as your child’s swimming buddy can help make sure someone is supporting your child while they are in the water at all times. Your child will also know who they can go to for help if they need it.

Floatation Devices

If your child is not very skilled at swimming, highly consider having your child use appropriate floatation devices such as life jackets or swim vests to assist the child in staying afloat and provide an added layer of safety.

Exit Strategy

Another important aspect of being in a pool is getting out. Exiting the pool can be challenging due to the gross motor skills required to climb steps or a ladder, especially while wearing a lifejacket and being wet. Therefore, it’s recommended to teach your child how to safely exit the pool using steps or a ladder.

Many children with autism require more practice on many skills as compared to neurotypical children. You might consider practicing the skill of getting out of the pool regularly to ensure your child can do it independently. You could also work on your child’s gross motor skills in other ways outside of the pool such as going up and down stairs inside a house.

Emergency Preparedness

Another way to keep children safe and to respond effectively if an emergency situation were to happen, is for you and/or another adult who spends a lot of time with the child to learn CPR and first aid and to be familiar with pool safety protocols. Although most people have a cell phone these days, remembering to have a phone nearby is also recommended in case you do need to call for help in an emergency situation.

By implementing these strategies and ensuring that someone is always supervising your child, you can help ensure that children with autism can both enjoy the pool and stay safe, as well. If your child likes being in the water, they can have fun and you can have more peace of mind with the proper precautions put in place.

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