Autism and Accidental Drowning Deaths

It is well known that drowning is one of the leading causes of accidental death among children and teenagers. It has also been speculated that those in this age group who had previously been diagnosed with autism or autism spectrum disorder were more likely to suffer fatal accidental injuries than their non-affected peers. A recently-published study has validated these speculations and has also confirmed the observation that those with autism seem to die at an earlier age than the population at large.

In the May 2017 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Joseph Guan and Guohua Li published a study entitled “Injury Mortality in Individuals with Autism.” This study revealed that children and teenagers with a clinical diagnosis of autism were three times as likely to die as the result of an accidental injury than others in this age group and, further, that drowning was the most common fatal accidental injury among those with autism/autism spectrum disorder.

The same authors used their original data to expand their analysis of autism and autism spectrum disorder drowning deaths. That study, published in the December 2017 of Injury Epidemiology concluded that:

  1. Males were more likely to be accidental drowning victims than females.
  1. Most drownings occurred less than ¼ mile from the victim’s residence.
  1. Ponds and lakes were the most common sites of drowning accidents, followed by streams or rivers. Private swimming pools were involved in less than 10% of reported autism drowning accidents.
  1. 75% of autism drowning deaths occurred between noon and 7:00 PM.
  1. Wandering away from supervision was the most common precipitating factor in autism drowning deaths.

Sadly, three recent news items seem to confirm both studies’ conclusions.

  • Three-year-old twin boys, Nicholas and Anthony Aurillia of Melville, New York, drowned on July 26, 2017 in an in-ground swimming pool at the family home. According to police reports, the boys’ mother found one child floating in the swimming pool and fire rescue personnel located the other child. Although it is unclear how the children were able to leave the house, the pool area was enclosed by a fence and an electronic pool monitor was in place. The deaths were later ruled to be accidental.
  • On July 8, 2017, seven-year-old Artemio Shkulaku was able to leave his parents’ home in Seminole, FL, and was found a short time later in a swimming pool at a house across the street. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital and the death was ruled an accident.
  • The body of 4-year-old autism victim Chelsea Noel was recovered from a shallow pond near her Port St. Lucie, FL home on December 2, 2017. She had last been seen the previous evening shortly before she went missing from her home and, despite intensive searching, she was not found until 24 hours later. Her death was determined to have been accidental.

It is well-known that children with autism and autism spectrum disorder are almost ingenious at slipping away from even the most attentive supervision. Given that there is clear evidence that those with autism are attracted to both swimming pools and flowing water, it is vital that the parents and caregivers be aware that any body of water poses a significant hazard to children with autism.

Other posts on this website have discussed the potential liability of local, state, and federal government agencies in accidental drowning deaths and such arguments will not be presented here, except to point out that if a private homeowner cannot prove that he or she took every reasonable effort to prevent access to their swimming pool could be held liable for wrongful death if an autistic child were to enter a swimming pool unnoticed by the homeowner.

In conclusion, it is thought that the altered sensory mechanisms of children and teenagers with autism/autism spectrum disorder place such individuals with a higher risk of death by accidental drowning. Before considering placement of autistic children in a day-care or other such managed therapy environment, parents should satisfy themselves that adequate safeguards are in place to prevent accidental drownings or other accidental injuries.