Children diagnosed with autism are at an unusually high risk of drowning compared to children without autism, a new study reveals.

Researchers analyzing death records found that children with autistic spectrum disorder are 160 times more likely to die due to drowning compared with the general pediatric population, leading to the conclusion that children diagnosed with autism (a diagnosis usually made between the ages of two and three years) should be taught swimming even before typical treatment modalities such as behavioral therapy, speech therapy or occupational therapy are initiated.

In other words, the ability to swim should take the early center stage.  Swimming in autism goes beyond quality of life; it prevents death.

These conclusions were made after reviewing over 30 million death certificates in the U.S. National Vital Statistics System. The investigators identified nearly 1,370 people diagnosed with autism who died between 1999 and 2014, and noted that individuals diagnosed with autism die at an average age of 36, compared with age 72 for the general population.

Further, the diagnosis of autism bestows a three-fold increase in the likelihood of suffering an unintentional injury-related death, most often by suffocation, asphyxiation or drowning; but the pediatric autistic population suffers the most from such injuries: these three types of injury accounted for nearly 80 percent of total injury deaths in children with autism. Overall, children and young teens with autism are 40 times more likely to die from injury than the general pediatric population.

Drowning accounts for 46% of all injury deaths among children with autism.

It is not unusual for autistic individuals to wander, and if the opportunity presents itself, they will wander toward a body of water, perhaps drawn to the calming effect of water, touching it and then often wading into pools, ponds or rivers.

It is for the caregivers of autistic children to be at the water’s edge years before the ill-fated wandering ever occurs.


Joseph Guan and Guohua Li.  Injury Mortality in Individuals With Autism. American Journal of Public Health: May 2017, Vol. 107, No. 5, pp. 791-793. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2017.303696  

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