One terrifying fact is foremost on the minds of every parent with an autistic child: Drowning accounts for 91% of the total number of deaths reported in autistic children in this country.
Turning that fear into action is what brought the mother of an autistic child and a Compton City Council Member together.
But that fear seems far away watching the two dozen or so autistic and special needs children splashing and squealing in the pool at Compton’s Gonzalez Park last month. They and their parents are part of the Autism Adventures Swim Club, a ten-week program founded by City Council Member Janna Zurita.
Zurita told us the inspiration for the group came from a conversation with Compton resident Consuelo Evans, whose 13-year-old son, Jasper Holt, is autistic.
“I had never heard that before,” Zurita says of the link between drowning and autism, until she met Evans. The Council Member asked the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to help make their swim club a reality by providing designated pool time at the park, along with several lifeguards who were more than willing to dive in and help. “This is our third year,” Zurita points out. “Some of the kids are now very comfortable in the water.”
The reason drowning is such an issue for children and adults with autism is that they are often attracted to water, according to the National Autism Association, (NAA). They also have a high rate of wandering off alone if let unsupervised for the briefest of moments. The results can be tragic.
In addition to the drownings, the NAA also reports that from 2009 to 2011 nearly one-third of parents with autistic children reported a “close call” with drowning.
“He gravitates to water and loves it,” Evans explains. “That’s why it was important [for him] to learn how to swim.”
“[Janna Zurita and I] thought it would wonderful to teach the kids water safety techniques,” Evans says. “If the child did wander and end up in [a body of] water they would hopefully swim [or] hold their breath, or float. Just be able to survive.”
Miguel Canales’ young daughter, Destiny, hasn’t found her comfort level just yet. “It’s her second time here but she’s getting there,” Canales says. While Destiny is easing into her lessons, her dad says he’s already feeling a tremendous amount of relief. “It’s scary. She could fall in the bathtub and and not know what to do. Every second counts.”
For Canales and other parents, time spent together at the pool has resulted in a welcome opportunity to share their experiences.
“You meet a lot of families here who want the same thing for their kids,” resident Tanya Jackson says. She and her three-year-old autistic son, Jeremiah, who also has Down Syndrome, have attended the swim club since it first started. “I network with so many different families. It’s also a great social group and an awesome experience.”
Evans couldn’t agree more. “There’s nothing like being around other parents who have children who are on the [autism] spectrum. We learn about new resources from one another,” she says.
Perhaps the most valuable thing shared here every Saturday is pure joy. Evans is not alone, marveling at the progress being made here.
“Jasper has not learned to swim yet,” she smiles, “but he knows how to hold his breath and float. We have some families whose kids wouldn’t even put their foot in the water. Now they’re in the water learning basic water safety techniques.”
“Before,” Jackson says of her own son, “he wouldn’t put his face in the water. He wouldn’t float. Now, I catch him during bath time putting his face in the water and blowing bubbles. It’s a very good feeling for a parent. He’s non-verbal but he signs, so when he did the sign for swimming this morning I said, ‘Yes, today is Saturday and we’re going swimming.’”
“It’s an amazing sight to stand out here and see this,” Zurita says, with a huge smile. “It’s all about enhancing the quality of life. That’s why all of us are here.”