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December 10, 2020

It Only Takes a Second: The importance of water safety for kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder

By Laura Byrne

“I only turned my back for a second.” It’s one of the most common things first responders hear from parents when they respond to drownings and near drownings.

“We often underestimate how long it takes to perform some of the most mundane tasks,” says Hillsborough Fire Rescue Quality Management Chief Jeremy Fischler. “We also underestimate how long it can take a child to drown. These two facts combined can lead to tragic results very quickly.  Drowning is often a very quiet event and not the loud, dramatic event often portrayed on television.”

As of Nov. 10 this year, Fischler says Hillsborough County Fire Rescue responded to 18 pediatric drowning calls in 2020, five of which were fatal.

The number of children drowning in our community is devastating and concerning. Fischler says more should be done to educate families and caregivers about the importance of taking the extra steps to keep our children safe.

There is also great concern for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who tend to be drawn to water.

“Experts are not sure why this fascination exists, but when you add that children with autism may also have difficulty recognizing and avoiding danger, the risk for drowning is very high,” says Christine Rover, assistant program director of the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities (CARD).

She tells us drowning is the leading cause of death for children with an autism spectrum disorder, and the first layer of protection is to introduce a child to swim lessons. This is something families can take advantage of year-round.

Rover explains that CARD-USF assembles an annual list of swim lesson providers for the 14 counties they cover, and they encourage families to call or email the organization to learn about programs in their community.  In Hillsborough County, the Children’s Board funds vouchers for swim lessons and provides additional funding for children with special needs who might benefit from individual lessons.

“A crowded pool with lots of activity and noise may be overwhelming, so taking a small group lesson at a quieter time may be a good fit,” Rover explains. “Instructors should provide specific information about what the child should do, provide simple steps, use concrete wording and follow a routine.  CARD is available to provide free training to instructors so they can support learners with ASD.”

In addition to swim lessons and diligently keeping an eye on our children in and near water, Fischler says we can all take steps to keep our children safe like installing perimeter warning devices on exterior doors, installing pool fences and utilizing water surface alarms. These devices will alert you if a child has gone somewhere they shouldn’t.

As we approach the holiday season, ensure that any loved ones you are visiting have taken precautions in their homes too.

“These precautions are no replacement for a high level of diligence when small children are present near water,” Fischler says. “When children are near the water or playing in the water, there should ALWAYS be an adult whose job it is to keep their eyes on the children. This is sometimes difficult to remember during social events with a lot of people, so it should be something discussed by all adults present so there is no question whether someone who is watching the children.”

When it comes to water safety, any additional precautions must be in addition to, not instead of, the ultimate protection: a parent’s full and complete attention.


The mobile water safety team provides private swim lessons to children with special needs, ages 3-14, at no cost.

Contact: erin.hotchkiss@tampaymca.org | (813) 224-9622 ext. 1292 | www.tampaymca.org


To learn more about additional safety resources from CARD:
https://usf.to/CARDautismsafety | 813-974-2532 | card-usf@usf.edu


It is recommended that all adults take a CPR course. The American Heart Association, American Red Cross and American Safety and Health Institute all offer virtual classes. The Children’s Board of Hillsborough County funds CPR classes at no cost at their Family Resource Centers. To learn more visit familysupporthc.org.

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