It is a common understanding that children with autism are naturally drawn to water. Something about that shimmery, cool, flowing liquid seems to capture their interest. Even for ourselves, what’s better than sitting on the beach or by the pool on a warm summer’s day? It is easy to imagine how anyone could be attracted to water. But, what is it about water that causes this obsession for autistic children? It is not only being in water that fascinates them, but everything to do with water- watching it, touching it, and even drinking it [1]! What is the link between autism and water obsession?

How water attracts autistic people Autism and Water Safety

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Autism and Water: The Supreme Sensory Stimulus

It is thought that this autism and water fascination is due to the supreme sensory stimuli that water presents us. Water gives us many different stimuli- visual, tactile, auditory, and even olfaction (smell). Water is visually extremely beautiful. The ripples in a flowing river, the giant waves of an ocean, the stillness of a peaceful lake all provide us with an extraordinary visual experience. In a pool setting, seeing the skewed colors and wiggly painted lines of the bottom of the pool provides an interesting experience for any child- everything looks off due to the refraction of light and movement of the water. It is easy to understand this link between autism and water attraction, even just looking at the visual aspect of it.

Autism and Water Child running through water copy

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There’s also all the other senses. The sounds of a flowing river or the crashing ocean are appealing to anyone; the smell of the salty sea or that distinct smell of a chlorinated pool make you think of how fun it is to be around water. The feeling of physically being in water is also an incredible sensory stimulus. The gentle sway of water against you, the weightless feeling that water gives you, as well as the feeling of waves spraying you as they crash at your feet- can you feel it? For a child with autism with hyperactive senses, these feelings can be multiplied to create one overwhelmingly amazing experience. It’s easy to see why then a child with autism would naturally be drawn to water. 

“For a child with autism with hyperactive senses, these feelings can be multiplied to create one overwhelmingly amazing experience.” 

To understand the link between autism and water attraction, we must first understand the sensory abnormalities present in autism. It is known that autism affects sensory processing in the brain- including stimuli involving one sense as well as multisensory integration [2]. Multisensory stimuli involve using more than one sense to understand the environment, such as reading someone’s lips in a noisy room to hear them better, or measuring someone’s reaction time (hearing a whistle, then immediately jumping into a pool, for instance). Children with autism have difficulty processing these stimuli, and linking together different stimuli to create an overall picture of their surroundings [3]. Typical sensory abnormalities in children with autism include hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli, hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli (which could mean not registering pain) and strong sensory seeking behaviours [2]. Relating all of this to water, perhaps the link between autism and water attraction is due to all of these sensory stimuli- visual, tactile, auditory, and smell- not being able to be processed together, resulting in an overload of stimuli that amazes the child, resulting in that strong sensory seeking behaviour. It was found that children with autism show stronger sensory seeking behaviour than other normally developing children [4], which could explain the obsession with water involved in autism.

 

Autism and Water Safety: Taking Swimming Lessons

Autism and Water Swimming lesson importance

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With this autism and water fascination comes the need for swimming lessons. It has been shown that aquatic therapy for children with autism can be extremely beneficial. Doctors had found that some patients showed improvements in swim skill and water safety, eye contact, muscle strength, attention, and balance in autistic children [5]. Other studies have found that aquatic therapy can instill a sense of confidence, improved social skills with peers, and can aid with the development of relationships [6]. 

However beneficial, water can also be extremely dangerous. Accidental drowning is one of the leading causes of death for children with autism, so learning how to swim and all about water safety and how to be safe around the water is of utmost importance, especially when taking into account this link between autism and water obsession.

AquaMobile prides itself on offering swimming lessons for children with ASD and other special needs. Book yours today!

 

References

1      Terai, K. et al. (1999) Excessive water drinking behavior in autism. Brain Dev. 21, 103–6

2      Baum, S.H. et al. (2015) Behavioral, perceptual, and neural alterations in sensory and multisensory function in autism spectrum disorder. Prog. Neurobiol. 134, 140–60

3      Baum, S.H. et al. (2015) Testing sensory and multisensory function in children with autism spectrum disorder. J. Vis. Exp. DOI: 10.3791/52677

4      Ghanizadeh, A. (2011) Can tactile sensory processing differentiate between children with autistic disorder and asperger’s disorder? Innov. Clin. Neurosci. 8, 25–30

5      Vonder Hulls, D.S. et al. (2006) Clinicians’ perceptions of the benefits of aquatic therapy for young children with autism: a preliminary study. Phys. Occup. Ther. Pediatr. 26, 13–22

6      Mortimer, R. et al. (2014) The effectiveness of hydrotherapy in the treatment of social and behavioral aspects of children with autism spectrum disorders: a systematic review. J. Multidiscip. Healthc. 7, 93–104