Prevent Drownings by Focusing on Water Safety

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., BCBA

[Published in the West Springfield Republican on July 22, 2021 and in the Stoughton Journal, Randolph Herald, Caton Journal, and Holbrook Sun on August 20, 2021, and in the Medfield Press on September 3, 2021.]

Ensuring water safety is important for all parents and caregivers, but special considerations may be helpful for those who have children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other developmental disabilities. Consider your child’s individual needs, general level of safety awareness, and ability to follow rules when coming up with a plan to best support him or her.

Many childhood drownings occur as a result of a momentary lapse in supervision, so the first step is to make sure you can see your child at all times when enjoying a day by the water. If you need to divert your attention even for a moment, ask another adult to “keep eyes on” your child – making sure they hear clearly and acknowledge the request. When swimming at a public pool or lake, choose a location with a lifeguard. Keep in mind that struggling swimmers will often be silent and may not show signs of distress. 
Even when if you’re not actively swimming, nearby bodies of water can still pose a threat to children, especially for those with limited safety awareness skills. A child with ASD may wander from the home to access preferred activities or explore a new environment, which could include water.

Some children with special needs may have limited verbal skills and may not respond when called. If this is the case with a child in your care, be sure to alarm the door, windows, and the pool gate. Additionally, some families use a GPS tracking device so their child can be quickly located if he or she wanders away. A medical ID bracelet can also be helpful if your child lacks the communication skills to answer questions posed by first responders.

Swimming lessons can be a helpful way to teach not only swimming, but important water safety skills. Even proficient swimmers can have difficulty in the ocean or bodies of water that may have a strong current, so overall safety awareness can be very helpful in this regard. And last but not least, don’t forget the life jacket or floaties!  

Swimming is a fun activity for many children – with and without disabilities – so finding a safe path to water access is a worthwhile pursuit! It not only allows for fun in the sun, but is an important life skill that will promote safety for years to come. 

Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA, is a Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, including one in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit