Thursday, September 11, 2008

Are ALL Autistic Children Relaxed In The Water?

The story of Christopher Marino and his dad, Walter Marino, surviving for long hours after being swept away from New Smyrna Beach. Florida in an outgoing tide is one that should lift anyone's spirits. While Chris and his dad were in proximity Walter Marino kept his composure, and his son's, by playing a game with him. He would say "To Infinity" and Chris would answer "And Beyond". Separated by the tide, Chris was not found for two hours after his dad was rescued but still remained calm treading water until he too was found. We are all lucky there are people in this world like the fisherman who found Walter Marino and the Coast Guard that rescured Chris. And it is great to see that, back home, Chris has jumped right back in the pool.

The story struck some personal notes with our family. We love to swim and are blessed with natural swimming locations and an excellent community swimming pool in close proximity. Conor loves the water and has always, and still, loves Toy Story. When he was younger, and smaller, he would stand on my knee in the water and I would shout "To Infinity" and pause before saying "And Beyond" before tossing Conor in the water. He would come up with a huge grin on his face and ask to repeat the fun over and over again. He has shot up "like a weed" over the last year though and we can no longer play that game so frequently.

I would not be surprised if it is true that many autistic children love the water but I have to question a bit some of the comments, highlighted in bold, of one of the experts quoted in the article on

And drowning is a leading cause of death for autistic children, said Orlando-based psychologist Terri Daly, who has worked with Christopher and his family.

Yet his inability to understand the gravity of the situation -- and the dangers that lurk beneath the ocean's surface -- might have kept Christopher from desperately fighting the current and sapping his strength.

"It . . . speaks to the observation that children with autism are very much at peace -- very relaxed -- in the water," said Michael Alessandri, a Coral Gables-based clinical professor of psychology and autism expert. "The situation was likely not exacerbated because the child did not panic -- did not realize (the) danger he may have been in -- and stayed calm."

Chris Marino was obviously relaxed and stayed calm. But is that just because he is autistic or because of previous exposure to water? Our son, Conor, is very relaxed in the water. He is autistic but he has had been exposed to the water on a regular basis for many years. Is it correct to generalize as Professor Alessandri did that autistic children are "very much at peace .. very relaxed .. in the water"? Would the same hold true for autistic children who have not been been exposed to the water and opportunities to learn to swim during their early years?

The Chris Marino story is one that cheers us all. But parents and caregivers might not want to simply assume that all autistic children are at ease in the water particularly if drowning is a leading cause of death amongst autistic children as stated by Psychologist Terry Daly.


FieldingHurst said...

My daughter would have enjoyed it for an hour or so, been very pissed after 2 or 3, and been using dad's body as a flotation device after several. :-)

Also, did anyone notice that this story started when they went swimming at NIGHT???

Marni Wachs (Zuke) said...

I'm so thankful for you writing this blog entry. What a dangerous myth to putting out there!

I feel like there are a lot of potentially harmful "feel good" statements that are made about autism that are sometimes just meant to be nice or politically correct, and at other times are made in the interest of someone's particular political agenda. In this case, it would obviously be the former. However, it's important for all to be responsible and accurate in the portrayal of the real learning challenges, or we do a great disservice to those we intend to help.

We have been so worried about the drowning risk as our son loves the water, has no reasonable fear of it, and is at risk to elope at any time. Hmmm, this doesn't sound like a recipe for a special status of his being "gifted" in the art of personal immunity from drowning. We were disappointed to have gone through "adapted" swimming lessons through the city that were essentially babysitting, and have decided to design and implement our own ABA-style swimming lessons that are comparatively intense, structured and reward contingent.

I could do with fewer "feel-good" and more REAL GOOD.

FieldingHurst said...

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