Safe and Sound

Categories: Parent Perspective

My daughter Adalyn has loved the water since she was very little. She was diagnosed with Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder when she was around 2 years old. I think of how far we’ve come since then. 

From the time she was really young Ady has always loved being in water, kicking up water and watching how it moves around her. She is absolutely drawn to streams, pools and especially the ocean. It’s alarming to think that children with Autism are 160 more times likely to drown compared to the general pediatric population. This is because water play is such a preferred activity for children on the spectrum. 


While the ocean is a place where you see pure joy from Ady, it calls for  constant vigilance as a parent to keep Ady safe. She’s at the age where she will stop if I am adamant about it, but she can never be out of sight on beach trips. Someone always has to have eyes on her. She doesn’t have a fear of the waves or currant, so once we commit to going in the water it’s hours straight of swimming and jumping waves.

I admire her connection with nature and want to do everything I can to give her the freedom to experience that, but at the same time I want to be able to always protect her. 


I’m very grateful that we did mommy and me swimming classes at a very young age, as well as followed up with swim lessons every summer. I am  constantly getting in the water with her and helping her to work on her swimming skills. We used floats when she was younger, but I knew she couldn’t be dependent on flotation devices forever. If there were ever an emergency, that she would need to be able to swim on her own, I knew it could be life saving. It also gave me a stronger peace of mind knowing that she could swim independently. With her curious nature and tendencies to wonder I felt that it would be something she would need in order to stay safe.    

I’m thankful that we live in a small community where everyone knows Ady. She’s a regular at the pool and all the lifeguards know her. They know that she has autism and may do things differently.

Every year at the beginning of the pool season her father and myself talk to the lifeguards families that visit regularly and we introduce Ady. It’s especially important if they weren’t present in prior years. We try to be constantly focused on her and her needs should she happen to have difficulty or need help.  We don’t expect her to be treated differently. We just want to make everyone aware.

I had a frustrating situation a few weeks ago, where I was pulled aside and told that she should always have someone by her side at all times and that the lifeguards weren’t “babysitters”.  I believe this came in frustration at the end of a busy day because eyes are typically never off of her.

She has a tendency to swim over to the diving well and from time to time  doesn’t move quick enough so that divers can go. Instead of reacting and yelling at her and telling her to get out-I told them that I would prefer if we can work on letting her swim to the ladder, and ask divers to give her a chance to make a choice instead of rushing her. All of the children that I have witnessed waiting have been very patient with her and it has been working. When  she takes longer than expected I will jump in and say “ladder” and show her the correct thing to do instead of blowing a whistle and yelling at her, which isn’t teaching her anything.

In my opinion Ady has the same skills as her peers, but isn’t looked at as a swimmer because she isn’t able to perform a test by their standards. I believe this should be modified especially for children with special needs that have shown they are able.  She certainly deserves to swim where her younger siblings and friends swim even if she’s not able to follow a step by step test. Ady has shown she has phenomenal strength and endurance.

She sees her peers and younger siblings. Ady notices the excitement and the fun they are having and wants to be a part of that. It’s difficult because she will be 10 soon, I’m sure she wants to have a sense of some independence. It’s a fine line between ensuring safety as a special needs parent and giving them room for independence and growth.

I think that sometimes people see her disabilities before her abilities. I always want be the first to build her up for all her triumphs and look at all her positives. They never outweigh negatives because there are no negatives, just challenges.




Susan Bitler
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