Tuesday, January 23, 2018

TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL: Boat Safely with Autistic Children

December 22, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

All boating parents focus on keeping their kids safe, but for families with children on the autism spectrum, safeguarding them while aboard requires extra precautionary measures.

Autism is defined by the American Autism Society of America as “a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life.” The result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, autism affects development in the areas of social interaction and both verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Those shaped by autism may lack any fear of danger, be over- or under- sensitive to pain, and have difficulty interacting with others.

While there is no known cure for autism, therapists, social workers, physicians and others assess each person’s place on the spectrum, and may combine treatments, therapies, and medications to help improve social and coping skills.  As each child differs in what he or she can accomplish, a parent will be in the best position to decide if an autistic child should go boating, and where additional vigilance or safeguards are required.

As boating is a wonderful activity that families share, parents want all of their children involved. Often just being in water can be a comfort to an autistic child. According to National Autism Association chairperson Lori Mcllewan, autistic children like water because it “helps them to maintain a sense of balance and feel a sense of weightlessness.”

Many autistic children tend to wander away if unsupervised, and are drawn to dangerous activities, particularly those involving water.  If your child responds to visual cues (pictures), prepare them for boating by showing them photos of what they’ll encounter. Perhaps you’ll first say, “You are going on a boat,” then show a picture of the vessel. Follow that with, “You will wear a life jacket on the boat to keep you safe and comfortable,” accompanied by a picture of child wearing a life jacket and sitting on a boat. If rewards are part of your child’s treatment, encourage him or her to put on a life jacket, followed by playtime with a game or toy.  “Good job” always adds extra enforcement of positive behavior.

Dr. Andrew Adesman, Chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at the Steven andAlexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, advises parents of children on the autism spectrum “to err on the side of caution.” Is your child fearful or fearless? Does he or she experience major sensory issues with noise or other specific stimuli? Will additional medication be needed for motion sensitivity or vertigo? How your child usually acts and what he or she responds to best will help you gauge how to prepare for a boat outing. For example, Dr. Adesman uses the usually routine application of sunscreen to illustrate where parents need to prepare.  “If your child has sensory issues, it may be important for him/her to get used to the sensation of the way the sunscreen feels on the skin before the day of the boating venture. For these children, exposing a child to sunscreen for the first time one hour prior to boating may prove to be a disaster.”

Dr. Adesman suggests boating with “an extra adult that the child knows.” If your child is non- verbal, he cautions, “It is very important to remember that your child can’t tell you how he/she is feeling and therefore you must keep an eye out for signs of discomfort, anxiety, etc.” While boating, keep your child in a comfort zone as much as possible. If he or she has a transitional object like a toy or computer game, be sure to bring it along as the child adapts to the new environment.

Imagine a boat from the perspective of a child who may be frightened or at least unsettled by every new smell, sound, taste, and touch, and address these concerns along with the routine precautions parents always take to keep kids safe, and your whole family will reap the rewards of time spent in each other’s company while boating.





A mother of a child with autism shares how she is helping her son overcome his fear of the water.

Pat (who requests her last name not be used), shares her personal story. “My son, Thomas, was diagnosed with autism at the age of four. One of his greatest fears was the fear of water. As a family, we enjoy all water sports and we felt that it was very important to include Thomas at an early age. We accomplished this by setting realistic goals and making sure that we reinforced each of his accomplishments by rewarding him with his favourite video game. We found the technique of using a ‘social story’ to reassure him of his safety and help prepare him for the next step. At first Thomas would put only one foot in a regular size swimming pool and slowly he progressed to standing in the shallow end of a pool. As he gained more confidence, we were able to increase our goals and now Thomas can independently play on a flutter board with supervision in the shallow end of the pool. Last year Thomas was able to go on a boat that was docked at a yacht club. We have worked hard this year at getting Thomas to wear a life jacket without feeling anxious and now he can put the jacket on by himself. This summer we are so exited to go boating as a family. Our family is thrilled with his success and as always, we are proud of Thomas.”

A note from the author: This article is dedicated to all of the children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and to their families, whose determination and persistence have helped to create a safe, happy, active environment together. Thank you to Thomas and his family– I am the luckiest person in the world to be part of your life.

Photos courtesy www.heartofsailing.org




By Jennifer Pollock

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