Water Safety Guide for Children With Special Needs

Cynthia Páez-Bowman
Updated May 17, 2021
1 min read

Summer pool time is approaching — and kids and parents really need it this year. Most public pools have been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving millions of kids wishing for swim time. However, most states are easing COVID-19 restrictions, and pools may be open again soon. But before parents take a dive with their kids, there are a few safety tips they need to keep in mind. 

Water safety should always be a top priority, especially after a year-long hiatus. Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in kids of ages 1-4 and 10-14. And for every drowning death, five children are hospitalized due to injuries from nearly drowning. Children with special needs face double the drowning risk of a typically developing kid, so parents must take the necessary precautions.

Although kids with developmental disabilities have a higher risk of swimming-related accidents or injury, swimming and water play could be fun and therapeutic and shouldn’t be avoided. SafeSplash, a swim school that offers special needs swimming lessons, points out that swimming lessons aren’t just about safety: “They can also be therapeutic and, for many special needs children, calming.” For those with sensory processing disorders, water can “soothe sensory overload and give swimmers a feeling of weightlessness and relief from physical discomfort.” Plus, parents can expect their children to see an improvement in “balance, coordination, strength, and range of motion.”

The biggest challenge for parents is creating the right balance of safety and fun. Some kids on the autism spectrum or who’ve been diagnosed with cerebral palsy may have a fear of water due to a sensory processing disorder and may not tolerate the sensation or texture of water well. Other kids may have an anxious temperament. Creating a safe, supportive, and fun swimming experience takes some effort, but it’s worthwhile to create a memorable summer experience.

Pool Safety Tips


Creating a safe swim environment for kids of all developmental and cognitive abilities takes some advanced preparation. The following steps can ensure your kids can make up for lost time and have the best (and safest) summer ever. 


Safety fencing and pool covers


Wandering or elopement are common in autistic children. Because they may be drawn to a swimming pool, securing yours is essential to prevent water-related accidents.

Safety fencing is a good first barrier to keep kids safe. It should completely surround the pool and be at least 4 feet high. Karen Cohn, founder of the ZAC Foundation, an organization working to strengthen pool safety legislation and funding advocacy, education, and effective programming surrounding water safety, says, “Install a regularly-inspected and locked fence around the perimeter of the pool and install an alarm that goes off when the surface of the water is disrupted by movement.”


Pool area surveillance


Dr. Tiffany Lee, a pediatrician and contributor for Parenting Pod, suggests that “caretakers of children with special needs practice ‘touch supervision.’ It means you are in the pool with them, never more than an arms-length away.” If close proximity isn’t possible at all times or you worry about a child wandering into the pool, outdoor cameras could be a valuable tool to ensure you are alerted if a child is near the pool area.

If you plan on visiting a public pool, don’t assume that a lifeguard is a replacement for touch supervision. Many pools will be busy during the summer, and a lifeguard may not be able to spot quickly enough if a child is in trouble.


Swim and water safety lessons


Many swim centers offer adaptive swimming lessons for kids with physical and cognitive disabilities. Kids with physical limitations may be eager to swim but need water safety instruction in addition to swim lessons. Kids with cognitive or developmental challenges may be afraid of water and need lessons that help them build confidence and reduce their fear of water. Adaptive swimming lessons ensure all kids are prepared and confident in the pool — giving parents and their kids added peace of mind.


Swimming pool rules


All kids should follow the rules regardless of whether they plan on swimming in a home pool or at a guest’s. One of the most crucial rules they should learn is to wait for permission (and supervision) to swim. Parents should keep consistent with this rule to ensure that children understand that approaching an unsupervised pool is potentially dangerous and forbidden.


Water park safety


Water parks are thrilling for many kids with physical or developmental challenges. However, a water park is typically chaotic and full of distractions that make it difficult for parents to supervise their child with special needs properly. Caretakers should make sure kids wear a life jacket in case their child wanders off. Wearing a waterproof form of an ID such as a bracelet with a name and cell phone number or a tag sewn onto a swimsuit could help if your child gets lost in all the fun. 

Natural body of water safety tips


Lakes, rivers, and oceans present different risks for water-loving kids with special needs. Natural bodies of water can be unpredictable. Depending on how anxious or distracted your child can be, you may want to start with swimming pool play until your kid is older or more experienced.

One of the most significant hazards associated with swimming in a river or ocean is currents or riptides. Before you expose your child to a less controlled environment, stronger swimming skills are advisable. Some kids may thrive in the challenge, whereas others may feel overwhelmed by the environment. Use your parental intuition to determine if exploration of natural bodies of water is appropriate.

You also may want to consider limiting your time to kayaking together or riding an innertube down a gentle river. Regardless of how much time you plan on spending at a nearby beach or lake, review water safety skills with your child and what they should look out for or avoid. They should understand that even the slightest current can pull you away from the area you started in and that fighting a current could tire them out.

As with pool safety, kids should understand that water can be fun but also require caution. They should ask permission before going swimming, wait for someone to supervise them, and stay aware of their surroundings. It may be overwhelming for a child to remember all the rules initially, but it will become second nature over time. For an extra reminder while enjoying the water, consider bringing along a cheat sheet like the one below. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment, but safety should always come first.

Safe play is the best play


Spending time outdoors and frolicking in water can be a wonderful, bonding experience for you and your child. Depending on your child’s comfort level, water play could be as simple as blowing bubbles or more physical such as swimming. The important part is that your child can safely and comfortably explore a pool, beach, or lake with your support and supervision, creating a lasting love of water and fun summer memories.

Cynthia Páez-Bowman

Cynthia Paez Bowman is a finance, real estate and international business journalist with published writings in Bankrate.com, The Simple Dollar and Reviews.com

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