Autism and water safety

20 April 2021

April is Autism Awareness Month and Royal Life Saving WA is urging all West Australians to understand the risks of water and benefits of swimming lessons for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). International research indicates people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are at greater risk of premature death due to drowning compared with the general population, while Australian drowning data shows that between 2002/03 and 2017/18, 33 people drowned where ASD was known to be a factor.

For children with ASD the risks are particularly concerning. Children aged 0 to 9 years accounted for 70% of ASD-related drowning deaths in Australia over that period. Inland waterways (river/creek and lake/dam) were the most common location for drowning in these cases.

Research shows that people with ASD are often drawn to water. This, added to the fact that they have a greater tendency to wander, increases the risk for children with ASD to fall victim to drowning. Parental supervision around water, including when bathing, is therefore paramount.

The principles of Royal Life Saving’s Keep Watch program are important for those living with or caring for those with ASD. These include:

  • Supervise - Actively always supervise people with ASD around water. This means focusing your attention on the person all the time, especially around water. Maintain close visual contact and, for children, keep them within arm’s reach. Adults with ASD should always swim with a friend.
  • Restrict - Ensure there is fencing around pools/spas, including a self-closing and self-latching gate. Close bathroom doors after use, cover spas and tanks, place mesh on water features and fish ponds and fence portable pools with a depth greater than 30cm.
  • Teach - Help people with ASD to become familiar with water. This involves checking for and removing water hazards, setting rules around water and discussing water safety. People with ASD may require one-on-one lessons with a specialised instructor trained to teach people with special needs.
  • Respond - Learn resuscitation/CPR, first aid skills and know how to save a life in the case of an emergency.


Although water poses greater risks for people with ASD, it’s important to also realise that, in the right learning environment, people with ASD can learn to swim and it actually extremely beneficial for them. Besides the obvious benefit of drowning prevention and water safety, parents report that learning how to swim also assists their children with ASD to improve their speech and cognitive function. For people with ASD the water is also a very soothing environment and has a calming effect.

Royal Life Saving WA has been working with many children with ASD as part of the SAIL (Specialised Access and Inclusion Lessons) program at Kwinana Recquatic and Armadale Fitness and Aquatic Centre for a number of years. The program provides subsidised one on one swimming lessons for those with ASD along with a range of other special needs. The instructors are specially trained to work with special needs children, and parents often remark on the amazing difference these lessons make to their child’s water safety skills and confidence.

Find out more about the SAIL program and our work teaching swimming to those with special needs at the link below.

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