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Teaching your child how to swim and learning water safety skills at a young age is essential to keeping your child with autism spectrum disorder safe. Swimming lessons for children with autism have many benefits for a variety of reasons; it helps develop:

  • Motor coordination
  • Sensory differences
  • Social interaction opportunities

Most autistic children love to explore their surroundings, and many are fascinated with water, which is why new locations with unknown water sources can prove fatal for children with autism, as they might try to get in without your supervision.

A 2017 analysis from Colombia university found that drowning is one of the most prevalent causes of death among children with an autism spectrum disorder. This is why teaching your child on the spectrum skills on how to swim safely and water safety is of utmost importance for their safety. 

Why are autistic children more susceptible to drowning?

Given the impaired cognitive functioning and language deficits among children on the spectrum, experts have found that autistic children are inept at seeing water as a threat. This is why autistic children are 160 times more likely to drown than neurotypical children.

Researchers have been unable to find any logical reasoning behind water attraction among children with an autism spectrum disorder. According to popular belief, autistic children feel a sense of calm around water and feel an impulse to get inside. Also, some believe that autistic children might find water attractive due to its reflective and shimmery properties. 

However, water has proven to have a calming effect on autistic child’s anxiety and stress. Helping your neurodiverse child feel comfortable in and around water and teaching them water safety, and swimming skills can reduce the fatality risks involved.

Tips for developing water safety and swimming skills among autistic individuals

Let`s look at ways to develop water safety and swimming skills among children with autism.

Teach them the importance of water safety 

The first step to teaching your child how to swim or be in the water is teaching them the importance of water safety. The earlier you expose your child to water, the better.

You can start teaching your child water safety at a young age through books, pictures, cards, stories, and practice. Moreover, sign up for local swim lessons specializing in adaptive programs and use an individualized approach to coach children with special needs.

Autism-certified water safety instructor

Most autistic children encounter water drowning incidents due to panic and anxiety; hence, it`s utterly important to teach them how to handle being in the water. Moreover, children on the spectrum have a varying range of disorders, and their experiences with water can also be different from one another.

Due to sensory overloads, autistic children can particularly feel overwhelmed in the water. This is why teaching them the confidence and skills to swim in the water in a controlled environment can be very rewarding in the future.

Have an autism-certified water safety instructor teach your child how to swim and have fun in the water without stressing or feeling overwhelmed. This training can also come in handy, especially in incidents like flooding, boating accidents, or other emergencies. 

Take necessary Precautionary measures 

In case you have a pool or live nearby water, make sure that you keep the doors locked or have a protective barrier around water bodies to avoid your child getting into the water unsupervised. Additionally, empty any small kiddie pools or tubes after using them to prevent unwanted incidents.

Make water safety rules

Children with autism are mostly rule-driven, so teach your children essential water safety rules that should be followed before jumping or stepping into the water. Besides setting water safety rules, you should also help them practice these rules in real-life situations.

You can also use a social story to teach your child how to enter the water and when it is safe to be in it.  

Make it part of routine

Creating a swimming routine is the best way to ensure that your child can handle water without being overwhelmed. Create a consistent swimming routine and practice in various settings to hone your child`s swimming and water safety skills.

Teach them how to handle panic and drowning

Even strong swimmers can panic in some situations, like sudden falls into moving water, etc. By teaching coping strategies to your autistic child, you can prepare them to deal with unexpected water encounters and stay alert.

According to Patty Huang, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, children with autism are adept at learning necessary swimming skills to avoid drowning in most random situations. 

Use swimming to help advance motor skills

While an autistic child learns how to swim and becomes confident, he also acquires better motor coordination skills because swimming involves exercising the largest muscles in the body. Some even learn extensive social skills through interaction with fellow swimmers. 

Other safety tips 

Here are some other safety tips to reinforce water safety behavior in your autistic child:

  1. Know if your child likes water or not, and use a personalized approach to teach them to swim to meet their unique needs. 
  2. Praise your child when they ask you before entering the water to reinforce positive behavior. 
  3. Make sure your child is near you in places like beaches or pools.
  4. Have your child wear a life jacket whether or not you plan on getting into the water. 
  5. Use a life jacket while boating etc.
  6. Only let your child swim in an area with a lifeguard to access the necessary help in an emergency.
  7. Avoid distractions like cell phones or conversations that will get you distracted from your child.
  8. Make sure that at-home pools and neighboring pools are fenced.
  9. Learn CPR and first aid for emergencies.

Essential swimming skills

Either you or the instructor can teach the following water safety skills to help your child learn how to respond if they end up in the water unexpectedly:

  • Teach them to jump or step into the water above their head level.
  • Teach them how to get back to the surface, float, or tread water for a minute.
  • Teach them to turn around in a full circle and look for an exit.
  • Help them learn how to swim 25 yards without stopping or taking a break.
  • Explain the steps to help them exit from the water or the pool without using the ladder.

Signs of drowning to look out for

Drowning can happen to even the best of us; all it takes is as little as one inch of water. So, look out for these signs of drowning wherever your child or someone else’s is swimming:

  • Hyperventilating or gasping
  • Tilted head with an open mouth 
  • Mouth below water 
  • Head bobbing up and down in the water
  • The person isn`t calling out for help or is too still
  • Floating vertically with little or no leg movement
  • Glassy or closed eyes
  • Face covered with hair 

Certified autism centers and parks

Opting for venues that have undergone IBCCES training on how to work with autistic individuals will give you peace of mind while your child learns swimming or water safety. 

Here`s a list of autism-certified water-related venues:


Swimming is an essential life skill that should be taught to children very young, especially children with autism. Teach your child both swimming and water safety to avoid unexpected water accidents. 

You can also discuss your options with your treatment team about prioritizing swimming as one of the treatment goals for your child. The best way for parents to teach their children how to swim is by considering their child`s sensory issues and learning styles.