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’s easy to imagine how anyone would find water attractive. But, what is it about water that causes this obsession for autistic children? Not only is being in water fascinating to them, but everything about water. Watching it, touching it, and even drinking it! So, what is the link between autism and water obsession?
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 provides an extraordinary visual experience: from the great waves of an ocean, to the stillness of a peaceful lake. In a pool setting, the skewed colors and wiggly painted lines of the bottom of the pool provide an interesting experience for any child. Everything looks off due to the refraction of light and movement of the water. When reflecting on the visual aspect of water, it’s easy to understand the link between autism and water attraction.
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 greatly increase to create one overwhelmingly amazing experience. It’s easy to see why children with autism have an innate fascination with water.
“For a child with autism with hyperactive senses, these feelings can greatly increase 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. This includes stimuli involving singular as well as multisensory integration (Baum, S.H. et al.). Multisensory stimuli involve using more than one sense to understand the environment. For example, you might read someone’s lips in a noisy room to hear them better. Children with autism have difficulty processing these stimuli. It’s more difficult for them to link together different stimuli to create an overall picture of their surroundings.
Typical sensory abnormalities in children with autism include; both hyper and hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli as well as strong sensory seeking behaviours. The link between autism and water attraction is in part due to the inability to process all of the senses at once. This results in an overload of stimuli that amazes the child, in turn, resulting in strong sensory seeking behaviour. Ahmed Ghanizadeh found that children with autism show stronger sensory seeking behaviour than other normally developing children, which could explain the obsession with water involved in autism.
Autism and Water Safety: Taking Swimming Lessons
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 have found that some patients showed improvements in swim skill and water safety, eye contact, muscle strength, attention, and balance in autistic children. Other studies have found that aquatic therapy can instil a sense of confidence, improved social skills with peers, and can aid with the development of relationships.
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.