Monday 8 January 2018

On unintentional drowning deaths in children with autism

Sometimes science seems to be science for the sake of science. Y'know, findings are reported and published and are met with either 'so what' or 'what does this mean for me?' sentiments, particularly when dealing with potentially abstract concepts.

The findings published by Joseph Guan and Guohua Li [1] most definitely DO NOT fall into such a category. Their covering of a topic which has potential life-limiting implications - unintentional drowning deaths - in the context of autism is worthwhile repeating again and again and again until everyone sits up and takes note. I might add that other previous research from this authorship team similarly evoke such sit-up-and-listen sentiments (see here).

What did the authors do? Well, simply put, they scanned the Lexis-Nexis® Academic database looking for all newspaper entries covering the terms autism, drowning and boy/girl from the beginning of January 2000 until May 2017 in the United States. They analysed the collected data; retrieving specific details such as "time of day and distance from residence" when it came to such reports.

Results: "During January 2000 through May 2017, US newspapers reported a total of 23 fatal unintentional drowning incidents involving children under 15 years of age with ASD [autism spectrum disorder]." Let's just reflect on that a moment. Twenty-three children / young adults with autism who drowned. Twenty-three lives tragically cut short. Twenty-three families left grieving.

Also: "Data about proximity of the water body to the victim’s residence were available for 11 (47.8%) of the incidents, with all of them within 1000 m of the victim’s residence (mean = 290.7 ± 231.5 m)." And also: "The time of day at which victims were reported missing was available for 15 (65.2%) of 23 incidents, with 2 (13.3%) being in the morning (0:00–11:59), 11 (73.3%) being in the afternoon (12:00–17:59), and 2 (13.3%) being in the evening (18:00 PM – 23:59)." And finally: "Wandering was the most commonly reported activity that led to drowning, accounting for 73.9% of the incidents."

I could go on about the limitations of this study as highlighted by the authors - "small sample size and the availability of information reported in newspaper articles" - but really I have to ask 'does it matter?' The answer: no, such study limitation don't really make too much difference to the final - very final - outcomes reported on.

The fact that wandering (elopement if you will) was a feature of many of the cases found is not new news (see here). It reiterates once again that resources aplenty need to be put into reducing incidences of wandering or at least allowing parents and law enforcement and other agencies every opportunity to locate wandering children/adults as quickly as possible. Some might worry about things like civil liberties when it comes to monitoring someones movements. But in current times, when someone can be tracked by their mobile/cell phone use for example, I'd respectively disagree with such 'civil rights are being impinged' sentiments. Imagine if you will, if one of the various 'tracking' devices currently aimed at those on the autism spectrum was given to every child / every family free of charge at the point of diagnosis? A good use of money methinks...

Water safety is another important part of the current findings. There is science out there talking about how learning to swim might have quite a lot of positives when it comes to autism [2]; perhaps the most important being learning water safety skills. Who would argue with that? And if one wanted to be proactive in this area, how about making water safety and swimming lessons a compulsory part of the learning curriculum for everyone diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder? Again, a very good use of money methinks and you never know, there may be other benefits too.

I'm not saying that there aren't individual circumstances around every one of those drowning deaths discussed by Guan & Li. I'm not saying that every death could have been avoided. What however I do believe is that armed with the knowledge that drowning is a significant cause of premature death in the context of autism, and knowing a little more about the general circumstances around some of those deaths, there are things that can potentially be done to mitigate future risks to the autistic population and potentially save lives.


[1] Guan J. & Li G. Characteristics of unintentional drowning deaths in children with autism spectrum disorder. Injury Epidemiology 2017; 4: 32.

[2] Alaniz ML. et al. The Effectiveness of Aquatic Group Therapy for Improving Water Safety and Social Interactions in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Pilot Program. J Autism Dev Disord. 2017 Dec;47(12):4006-4017.


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