Swimming Lessons: First Line of Treatment for Children with Autism


I recently published a study in the American Journal of Public Health looking for patterns in deaths of individuals diagnosed with autism. With the help of Master’s student Joseph Guan, I examined 15 years of National Vital Statistics Systems files. We found that among the 39 million death records there was a 700 percent increase in the number of people who had autism when they died, and that those individuals died at half the age of the general population who lived to be 72. Just over a quarter died due to an injury surrounding suffocation, asphyxiation, or drowning. It was children with autism who appeared to be most at risk. They were 40 times more likely to die of injury compared to other children and one of the three aforementioned causes played a role in their death 80 percent of the time. Drowning killed more of them than anything else, particularly when it came to children between the ages of five and seven. These deaths are preventable.

A major contributing factor to the large number of drownings is wandering, a common behavior of about 50% of children living with the neurodevelopmental disorder. While wandering, they are often attracted to the serenity of bodies of water, such as pools, ponds, and lakes. This wandering and the attraction to water seemingly serves as a coping mechanism for relieving the anxiety of many children living with autism. Armed with this knowledge there are preventive actions parents can take.

A major contributing factor to the large number of drownings is wandering, a common behavior of about 50% of children living with the neurodevelopmental disorder.


Once a child is diagnosed with autism, usually at age two or three, the first step parents and caregivers can take is to teach the child how to swim, preferably by enrolling the them in swimming classes. Swimming classes should be top priority for children with autism because they allow the child to acquire an important survival skill, learn about water safety, and substantially reduce the risk of drowning. They can learn to swim even before they walk or talk. The battle to prevent these injuries does not have to rest solely with parents.

The business community and government agencies can help make changes that will save lives. Medical insurances can consider covering swimming classes for children with autism, much like medications, behavioral therapies, language therapies, and occupational therapies. In addition, advocacy groups such as Autism Society of America, Autism Speaks, and other nonprofit professional organizations, such as Swimming USA and the American Academy of Pediatrics can join forces to make swimming lessons more readily available.

There needs to be a shift in policy and thought. My hope is that funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Autism Society of America will increase financial investments in this important area of research and build the evidence base for improving the safety, health and wellbeing of people with autism.

The author would like to thank Estell Lenita Johnson for her editorial assistance. 

Feature image: Juhan Sonin, Skyline reflection in the morning, used under CC BY 2.0, for illustrative purposes only.