Autism and Child Safety

This story does not have a happy ending. It is about one of my young patients who drowned recently. The tragedy coincided with the National Autism Association’s announcement that there were a bunch of Big Red Box safety kits available for families in need. Originally, I thought I would instruct other families about the dangers of elopement and water safety.

My patient’s mother is no ordinary Mom, who simply wasn’t aware of the dangers of swimming pools, or the danger to children, or the dangers of autistic children around swimming pools. This is a trained individual whose previous work included heading an agency that oversees children’s health and welfare issues. It was her responsibility to make sure that there was enough information, by way of seminars and media, to teach the public and protect the children.

Additionally, the Mom told me a story about having already witnessed another near-drowning episode. Not only was this mother aware of safety, she was cognizant of the ‘innocent manner’ in which suffocation can happen. Mom had been present when another child just disappeared while people were in the pool area. I have observed this phenomenon myself – that infants and toddlers just slip into the pool, with very little struggle, and sink to the bottom, regardless of their ability to swim. So, that event prompted installation of  her pool fence.

There were also locks (automatic ones). Swimming lessons – check. The child had plenty of supervision. Mom had considered alarms, but they wouldn’t have been practical in her backyard  – which was set up to insure her children’s safety. Furthermore, the child was discovered after being submerged for just one minute! But, it was too late, because the toddler had taken such a deep inhalation that the lungs were already too damaged, and the youngster did not survive.

Discussing pool safety with these parents yielded no extra knowledge or insights for me to report. “Everything about that day was just a little off,” the mother explained. There was nothing that Mom could put her finger on; it was just that events did not go smoothly throughout that day, culminating in this horrible catastrophe. The question that I had to ask was, “What can we learn from this tragedy?”

I am not saying that parents don’t need to utilize all of the preventative measures that may mitigate the chance of such an occurrence.

In fact, the procedures that this family had already put in place provided comfort. Knowing that they had, indeed, done everything possible enables this brave mom and dad to move on with the job of raising the other children.

What I have learned from this tragedy and by interviewing the family is this: It is NOT the autism, or the drowning, or the age of the child that leads to our sorrow; it is how cruel life can be. Accidents happen. If, like these parents, we really accept that all precautions have been taken, that knowledge will allow us to persevere and take care of those left behind.

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Brian D. Udell MD
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