If you gave my son a choice for a preferred activity, 99% of the time he would say “go swimming”. There are few activities that keep him as interested as playing in water. If he is not swimming, you may find him at home asking to pour water. One of his most recent favorite gifts were color changing cups intended for this activity. This obsession with water is not unique to him, it seems to be a common theme for many kids on the spectrum.
The stimulus given by water is hard to beat. It can give a child seeking stimuli many different avenues, from visual (my sons preference), to tactile, even auditory if they prefer the sounds that running water can give. All these elements drive it to be a supreme fascination for many autistic children. As parents, we can use this information to help drive our decisions. Here are 4 very different ways our son’s love for water has made it into our lives:
- As a Calming Technique
As I said before, pouring water is a coveted activity at our house. It is not unusual to see various cups covering my countertop on a daily basis. Damion loves to pour the water from cup to cup and watch the water as it moves (keeping towels handy is never a bad idea). He has gotten so good at this task that we often joke of a future he could have as a bartender or mad scientist. Obviously, this is not an appropriate activity for all places, but it has been an option for us to offer at many outdoor venues that may be an overload for him. Examples such as birthday parties, or outdoor venues or restaurants have all been places that we have allowed this activity. I was even known to pack cups specifically on vacation that had straps on them so he could take them to pour water on the beach and they wouldn’t get lost. If your child likes watching water flow there may also be some mess free toys that work to calm them as well. For an option of a purchasable toy click here or you could always try making your own, for instructions click here.
- As a Fun Reward
Obviously, this love for water makes it a top-of-the-line reward. We do not have a pool at our house, but our parents have a pool that is just a short drive away that we utilize heavily in the warm months out of the year. We also did purchase a blowup water slide for our own house that has gotten a lot of great use over the past few years. From life skills such as dressing, to feeding therapy, to non preferred fine motor tasks, the sky is really the limit on what you can work on when swimming is the offered incentive at our house.
- As a Bad Habit
We have found out the hard way that easily accessible rewards can quickly turn into bad habits that are hard to break, one of our biggest came in the form of toilet flushing. Another water activity that involves getting to watch water spin was of course an easy little reward after using the potty. Unfortunately, the convenience of indoor plumbing makes toilets a hard thing to avoid. Definitely a habit that is hard to break once it is started. We did our best by just keeping bathroom doors locked at our home and would insist that he only flushed toilets one time and then “all done” at public locations. Some issues still arise in places that are hard to prevent excessive flushing such as restrooms with automatic flushing options. We have even been given stories at school where he seemed to get “stuck” in the boy’s restroom as he walked with his pants down after doing his business in front of all the urinals, stimming as all the automatic flushers went off. This part is a definite downside to our water bug but we do our best to find deterrents and alternatives to power through, and over time it has gotten better.
- As a Safety Concern
Of course, a huge downside to all of this love for water, is a risk of drowning. Studies show that drowning is one of the leading causes of death in young children with ASD, with kids on the spectrum being 160 times more likely than their peers to drown (more info here). I know that I have seen these types of reports on the news more times than I can count. So, what can we do to help keep them safe? Teach them water safety at a young age and teach them how to swim as early as you can! I was adamite that even though getting a pool would be nice, we would have to wait until Damion was older and I could trust his swimming capabilities. We were very strict with making him always wear his floaties (puddle jumpers) when we would be anywhere near the water, so he got in that habit early. We personally did not get formal swimming lessons for him. With our current close access to his grandparent’s pool, we hit the swimming lessons hard on our own once we thought he was ready, and with continued work he has become quite the good swimmer, although we still would not allow swimming without an adult present and have no plans to change this rule just yet. Although we did not get formal swimming lessons, I would urge those that don’t have the means to teach swimming themselves to seek them out. We live in the middle of nowhere so our local options are pretty limited to YMCAs, but for those closer to the larger populations you may have many more options. If the only places around don’t have classes specifically for special needs, you could always look at just doing one-on-one lessons. Forewarning that you may have to pay more for special needs or one-on-one than normal lessons, but in the end, it is money well spent to help keep them safe.
So, there you have it. The good, the bad and the ugly that comes with having a child fascinated with water. Hopefully knowing some of the risks and rewards can help you structure things to allow your water loving child to thrive and thrive safely. Have fun, be safe, and enjoy a summer full of water activities.