Australian children with autism are being taught essential swimming skills

Harrison Lettice on the beach at Coogee. Source: Gavin Little

Drowning is the leading cause of death among children with autism spectrum disorder. An Australian organisation is now working with instructors to teach them water therapy and safety.

Seven-year-old Harrison Lettice has Autism Spectrum Disorder - a neurodevelopmental condition that changes behaviours, and how people view the world. Individuals with ASD can be prone to seizures and wandering.

Harrison's mother, Natalie, says his wellbeing around water has always been a concern.

“As a parent, you're always scared and worried that something's going to happen to him, and being on the spectrum even more so they're at a hundred miles an hour sometimes," she tells SBS News.

"We were at the beach recently and he just took off.”

Drowning is the leading cause of death among children with ASD. Now, an Australian established swim safety program is working to address the problem.

Autism Swim
The risk of drowning increases with an individual’s ASD severity.
Gavin Little


Autism Swim founder, Erika Gleeson, admits that when she first saw some of the associated statistics, she thought it was a mistake.

“Children with autism under 14 years of age are 160 times more likely to drown than their peers. Often they have a decreased ability to perceive risk and danger, and often they are not very strong swimmers.”

ASD diagnoses have surged by 1,150 per cent since 1995. One in 70 people have an autism diagnosis in Australia. Experts say there is very limited awareness in the general community about ASD and the attraction to water and wandering behaviour some children on the spectrum have. 

Harrison's father, Steve, says they needed to take action.

“His swimming is excellent but the difference between safety in the pool and safety in the surf is very different. We were confident that he would be okay if something happened in the pool area before this program, but we didn't have the same confidence if we were in the surf.”  

A surf-based 'Dippers' program builds safety and awareness at the beach.

“We identified all of the reasons why people with autism are at such a significant risk, and we went ahead and developed a solution to each of those associated risks”, Ms Gleeson says.

Harrison Lettice
Harrison's parents say the program has given them confidence at the beach.
Gavin Little

Harrison was recently recognised as the program's most improved participant. For his parents, it's all about keeping their son safe.

“If we do come down to the beach, he's going to run in the water. You can't just hide from the fact, you've got to address it and say, 'okay, he's going to be in the water and we've got to do what we can to make him safe'," Steve says. 

"Without a program like this, it'd be up to the parents to do it themselves, which is a tough gig.”

Autism Swim now provides specialised instructors in 13 countries.

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