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Chris Samuels/Deseret News

Water safety training is a necessity for children with autism

By Sandra Olney | Posted - Jun. 19, 2015 at 8:12 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Drowning is the leading cause of preventable death for children with autism. It is a mystery what draws these kids to water, but it is a fact that it can often be deadly. The best form of prevention is water safety lessons taught by those who understand a child with autism.

Fifteen-year-old Jarrett Lyon has autism. His mother, Kara Lyon, says he has been drawn to water since he was a baby. "A lot of kids on the autism spectrum are fascinated and really almost obsessed with water, it draws them in," says Lyon.

Many of us are fascinated, even comforted by the sound, sight and feel of water. In children with autism, the attraction goes deeper. Court Allred is a licensed clinical social worker with the University of Utah's Autism Spectrum Disorder Cinic. "Being cocooned in the water is a fascinating idea to them, being under it and closing out all the sounds, all the demands from other people, they can just kind of block it all out," he said.

Most kids with autism also block out the fear that others might naturally have of putting their head underwater. "They don't have any comprehension of fear or that water is dangerous. They have no danger anxiety," Lyon said. Allred agrees. "They don't know it's going to be life-threatening."

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"And so, if they don't know how to be safe around the water, it's a great hazard for them," Lyon added. It's hazardous and even deadly for kids like 5-year-old Michael Bolden of Hillsborough County, Florida. The autistic boy wandered into a pond in the middle of a farmers market last month and drowned.

"We do find that if there is a lethal outcome to a wandering event, 90 percent of the time it's going to be drowning," Allred said. Fear of losing her son, Jarrett, to drowning drove Lyon, a lifelong swimmer and lifeguard, to develop her own unique way of teaching children with autism water safety.

"We have to overcome the panic, the fear, and all those things that would keep them from being safe in the water," Lyon said. Concerns about safety brought Lisa McNett to the Swim Kids program in search of lessons for her autistic son, Elijah. "With Elijah, it is really important to keep things calm and very comfortable so he feels safe in the water," McNett said.

We have to overcome the panic, the fear, and all those things that would keep them from being safe in the water.

–Kara Lyon

Four-year-old Elijah loves the water but cries out in fear before nestling into the comforting arms of Kara Lyon, his teacher. "I sometimes do a lot of deep squeezes, a lot of deep pressure," Lyon said.

Individualized teaching in private lessons is the Swim Kids way. That is why Swim Kids owner Liz Walker tapped Lyon to work with autistic children. "For her to take the information that I've been teaching her and combining it with her ability to work with autistic children, it's been very helpful," Walker said.

"I have to find what works for each kid that brings their body sort of back into a calm state so that then I can teach them and be more effective in helping them learn," Lyon said. It's the way Elijah learned what to do if he falls into the water. "And he (Elijah) does know what to do. If you ask him, he'll tell you 'to float' and he learned that from Kara," McNett said.

Lessons learned today could save lives tomorrow, Walker said. "I recommend that you start young and you continue on to give them that skill and safety for their life."

Private lessons can be expensive, so the Autism Speaks Foundation is offering scholarships for those who show a need for financial assistance. Also, Salt Lake County offers an Adaptive Aquatics program at most of its pools.

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