Summer safety tips for families of children with autism
Many families beat the summer heat with trips to swimming pools, beaches, and water parks; but water safety concerns are particularly heightened for families of children with autism, said Varleisha Gibbs, OTD, OTR/L, occupational therapy professor at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. In fact, drowning remains a leading cause of death in children with autism because they often become overstimulated with crowds and escape to unsafe environments.
“Among the plethora of concerns for families dealing with autism, includes addressing water safety practices as early as possible in a child’s life,” said Dr. Gibbs. “Although water safety is a concern for all parents, children with autism are especially at a higher risk for drowning because they may seek isolation by fleeing to unfamiliar territories.”
According to the National Autism Association, accidental drowning accounted for approximately 90 percent of total U.S. deaths reported in children with autism ages 14 and younger subsequent to wandering/elopement in 2009 to 2011. Furthermore, research indicates that nearly 50 percent of children with autism attempt to escape from a safe environment – a rate nearly four times higher than children without autism.
Dr. Gibbs compiled the following summer safety tips to help parents relax and enjoy the summer with their children with autism:
• Learn to swim. Enroll your child in swimming and water safety lessons as early as possible.
• Visual learning. Use video narratives to discuss water safety, as well as outline specific rules and consequences related to poor safety practices.
• Display reminders. For children who respond well to visual cues, consider placing STOP or DO NOT ENTER signs on all doors that open to the outside.
• Key information. Make sure your child knows his or her name, address, and phone number in the event he or she is separated from family. If your child does not speak, he or she should wear a bracelet or necklace with identifiable information.
• Avoid sensory-overload. Summer is the time for vacations, exploring new places, and sensory-overloading experiences. Try to prepare your child for what they can expect as they enter a new environment – whether it is a beach, pool, or even a restaurant.
• Alert others. Communicate with your neighbors, whether at home or on vacation, and ask them to contact you immediately if they see your child wandering alone outside your home or property
“Swimming and aquatic therapy is actually a wonderful sport for children with autism because it can address many of their body’s sensory and motor needs,” said Dr. Gibbs. “By preparing and communicating with your child with autism, family, and friends, summer trips and activities can be much less stressful and more enjoyable.”
Dr. Gibbs earned her BA in psychology from University of Delaware, MS in occupational therapy from Columbia University in the City of New York, and doctorate of occupational therapy from Thomas Jefferson University. She has written and spoken extensively on sensory processing disorders, and also co-authored Raising Kids with Sensory Processing Disorders: A Week-by-Week Guide to Solving Everyday Sensory Issues. For assistance in making arrangements to interview Dr. Gibbs, contact Lauren Whetzel ([email protected], 215.596.8864) or Brian Kirschner ([email protected], 215.895.1186).