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Why Are Children with Autism Drawn to Water?
It is easy to see why many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are captivated by water. The number of stimuli associated with water hits all the senses! The feel of water, the sounds of waves and splashes, the visuals of light reflecting off the surface, and even the smell can all be so enticing. Of course, these reasons are also why children with autism who struggle with sensory challenges hesitate to touch water at all. Water is soothing to most children with autism but can be overstimulating to others. Regardless, this knowledge is important: Drowning is a leading cause of death in children with autism (read more about our safety tips here).
Water provides multiple stimulation’s
Think about what you experience in pool water or the ocean. The surface of the water sparkles in a pool, and ocean waves create foam against a beach. The smell of chlorine or saltwater is obvious, and visuals are distorted as you look into the water. Now put yourself in your child’s shoes and consider how happy they are with their favorite weighted blanket or textile toy. The water offers everything they gain from those stimuli and more.
The sensory experience is magnetic
Autism affects how the brain processes sensory information, and it is common to see children with autism seeking stimulation in different ways. Rocking, flapping, and even self-harm are all commonly associated with autism. The goal is to activate whichever sensory experience is most appealing to the individual, but what is so special about the water? Children with autism have difficulties connecting different stimuli to the same experience, making water very exciting. There are so many switches in the brain being activated simultaneously, that it’s no wonder children with autism are fascinated.
Water increases wandering risk
Children with autism are also more likely to wander, leaving them vulnerable to being alone near bodies of water. However, a typical pool or beach environment has more distractions for a special needs child beyond simply the danger of the water. There are children running and splashing, echoes in an indoor pool, and countless other new stimuli to process. A child may be drawn to the excitement or a bright yellow slide that splashes. Before there is time to consider their own actions, they may easily slip into the water unnoticed. There is so much about water and what is associated that can attract a child with autism.
So how do you ensure that your child with autism is safe around water? There are precautions that you can take, from incorporating social stories to teach water safety to making sure your swimming pool is fenced and the gate is locked. If your child has elopement issues, AngelSense can alert you immediately if your child has wandered.
The discussion of water safety should happen with every child, but because of the unique experience a child with autism may have in and near water, ensuring their safety is a summer must. There are even swim classes specially designed for children with autism.
You can’t help that your special child is drawn to water, but you can help keep them safe.