More Aussie families benefit from Autism Swim's life saving advice

Published on 28 February 2019

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Did you know children with autism are 160 times more likely to drown than their peers?

When behaviour specialist in autism and intellectual disabilities Erika Gleeson discovered this shocking statistic – she didn’t believe it.

“I was floored. I originally thought it was a typo,” Erika said. “I’ve been in the industry for more than 10 years, and the professor I was working with, who's been doing this for nearly 40 years, he had no idea either.”

“All of a sudden it became a top priority for me and I was desperate for all of my clients to engage in swimming services.”

However, as many parents of children with ASD would know, Erika faced swim schools who said they simply couldn’t take on her clients.

“91% of parents in our community with autistic children have left a swim centre or instructor as they didn’t feel their child’s needs were understood.”

“I went to local swim centres, and they said, "Look, we'd love to but we keep having failure after failure." And so I said, "If I help you as an autism behaviour specialist, will you take them on?"

“So, I started giving the swim teachers training and resources around behaviours of concern, skill development, sensory challenges etc and how to help these swimmers. And then from there Autism Swim was born.

With the help of a Sunsuper Dreams for a Better World grant Autism Swim is tackling the high number of drownings among young people with autism and intellectual disabilities and ensuring every young person is safe around water.

There are many reasons why the statistic is high.

Individuals with autism have a high likelihood of wandering. Around 50% of children or individuals with autism wander which means they will leave the safe care of the person they are with.

“More often than not, when individuals with autism wander, they gravitate towards bodies of water,” Erika said.

“It's possible that they associate that water with alleviating a lot of their sensory needs. However, when they get to the water their brain can have a decreased ability to perceive risk and danger.”

“When they get to the water, whether that’s a pool, a lake, river or ocean, they may not think, "Okay, well there's not an adult here. I don't understand what's happening beneath the surface. I can't hold onto the edge if I'm in a lake or a river.”

“All of the risks that neurotypical children learn to process over time, sometimes that's really difficult for these individuals.”

There's also an issue called generalization. And this is specific to the autistic brain in that quite often these individuals learn a skill in a certain environment and with a certain person, but their brain has difficulty transferring that to different people and to different environments.

For example, the child may be able to swim fairly well in a pool environment, but the moment they get to a river or a beach their brain actually can't transfer that skill to a new environment.

“Our dream for Autism Swim is to offer a solution for every area that contributes to this high drowning statistic,” Erika said.

Autism Swim is a social enterprise of experts specialising in wandering and drowning prevention for those with ASD and other abilities. The key to the success of Autism Swim is equipping parents and adults with the right tools.

Swim instructors, surf lifesaving groups, therapists and schools can all become Autism Swim certified and equipped with the knowledge how best to educate participants with autism and other abilities about water safety.

Parents can take online training and workshops or access clinical support.

Individuals with autism can take swim lessons with certified swim trainers, participate in specialised nipper programs or play the water safety app.

Autism Swim named Better Business grant finalist

Autism Swim was one of three small business finalists for Sunsuper’s Dreams for a Better World 2018 program. They received $7,500 in grants to tackle this growing social issue that is having a significant impact in Australians communities – particularly for those with autism.

The grants have helped empower parents with a water safety app for kids and toolkits for wandering and drowning prevention to ensure they are equipped with the knowledge, skills and support needed to keep their precious child safe.

Learn more about how a Sunsuper Better Business grant could help expand your social enterprise or small business that is tackling a social issue in the community.

For more information about wandering and drowning prevention contact Autism Swim.

Autism Swim was established in 2016 by Founder and Clinical Director Erika Gleeson (G.C Autism, B.A Behavioural Science). Erika is a Senior Behaviour and Skill Development Specialist in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and cognitive deficit; and is widely recognised as Australia’s leading expert in Wandering and Drowning prevention for those with ASD/cognitive deficit.

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