child in pool with safety gear
With the prevalence of pools and ponds in addition to the Gulf in Southwest Florida, it is no wonder that teaching water safety to our children is a priority. For parents of children with special needs, finding a program that addresses the unique challenges of their children can be critical to their survival in the water.
“Drowning is the number one cause of death in children with autism,” according to Paula DiGrigoli, executive director of the NCH Safe & Healthy Children’s Coalition of Collier County. “Many children with autism are instinctively drawn towards water with a natural fascination, he explains.” In one week’s time in 2013, three deaths of young children with autism were reported nationwide. In Collier County in June, a girl with autism managed to slip away unnoticed by her family and fall into a retention pond across the street from her home. That child was found in time and survived.
River Park Community Center Recreation Supervisor Lynn Clarke explains how she has adapted the SWIM Central Program for the autistic community. “SWIM Central is a two-week, 10-day program for 30 minutes each day. This, we do not change. Actually, that is the beauty of the program. Kids learn (disability or not) by repetition and offering this type of program that is consistent over the 10 days offers that. It allows for muscle memory, repetition, schedule and it is really fun.”
Clarke uses no more than a 1:2 ratio, of instructor to student, rather than a typical 1:6 ratio, when teaching swim safety to children with autism, and tailors each of her sessions to the needs of the participants. For kids with a multitude of disabilities, she explains, her class is adapted based on behavior, attention span and if they need be held while in the water. She also has worked with sight-impaired children through Lighthouse of Collier County.
SWIM Central, which began in March 2012 through the NCH Safe & Healthy Children’s Coalition, has since served more 775 children of all abilities through more than 6,000 water safety lessons. Thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Naples Children & Education Foundation and the Naples Winter Wine Festival, 1,000 more Collier County children will be able to participate in this program. SWIM Central, in partnership with the Greater Marco and Greater Naples YMCAs, Collier County Parks and Recreation, the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida and City of Naples River Park Aquatic Center, provides access to these lessons to socioeconomically disadvantaged children who might not ever have this opportunity.
The NCH Safe & Healthy Children Coalition Chairman Naples Dr. Todd Vedder is a local pediatrician who has made water safety his mission. “Without him,” DiGrigoli commented, the Coalition “could not have accomplished what we have.” She points out in addition to being a busy pediatrician, Dr. Vedder frequently speaks about the Coalition’s programs to the public, his peers and to potential donors that can sustain the programs.
After a tragic drowning at Sugden Park this past June, Dr. Vedder put into motion a free life jacket loaner program in 13 locations in Collier County, including public access beaches and at Sugden Park. Parents can keep kids of all abilities safer near recreational water areas through this program, which depends on donations and maintenance from local marinas, the Coast Guard and Collier County Parks and Recreation department. “Kids don’t float,” DiGrigoli says, “life jackets do.”
Clarke wants parents to know that the SWIM Central program works for children regardless of their abilities. “It isn’t fool-proof and it doesn’t mean you should let your kid go swimming without you. However, this program will teach kids the techniques they need to save themselves, in addition to developing their motor and social skills. Fall in (jump in), turn around and get to the safe place (wall, shore, boat, life saver).”
Layers of prevention
Swim lessons and life jackets are all a part of the layers of protection in drowning prevention, according to the Safety Coalition’s website. The layers include:
• Have one adult always be the child watcher at gatherings near water so there is no question that someone is watching the children. That adult can even wear a tag or sign that indicates that they are the current adult on child watch.
• Use barriers: Gates, fences and alarms around pools, maintain drain function in pools
• Swim instruction for survival skills
• Know CPR and always have a phone by the pool
For more information:
Lighthouse of Collier County:
Interactive Autism Network:
Stacy Nicolau is the Assistant Publisher of Neapolitan Family Magazine and the mother of three.