Springtime Safety Series Part 2: Water Safety

As we talked about in my last post, having a child with characteristics of autism presents a unique set of challenges when it comes to safety. A safety situation that weighs heavy on my mom-heart is keeping kids safe near water. Children with the kinds of sensory seeking behaviors so often associated with ASD are often incredibly drawn to water. This alone is a challenge.  Add to that the difficulties of teaching water’s inherent dangers to children who neither see risk nor have the necessary language and conceptual formation abilities to process the “rules” verbally and that equals a scary situation that we need to spend time addressing.

So, what I’d like to do in this post is walk you through a process for teaching water safety which I hope will serve as a model the way you’ll teach your individual child. As usual, I strongly encourage you to adjust this process for your child’s developmental abilities, tendencies, and preferences. Please ask your friendly speech-language pathologist, teacher, or other therapist for help if you need it—or ask me! I always love talking to you guys. You can reach me at contact@whiterockautism.com, or by commenting on our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/whiterockautism.

Step 1: Make sure they have a word for “water”

This one may seem a little obvious, but for children with language delays, kids may associate the sensation of wetness and how it feels without having the word for “water.” We may need to spend time associating that “water” as the thing that makes the feeling when you touch it . They also may think of “water” as a drink option, but not equate it with pools, oceans, fountains, etc.  Therefore, step one, so that you can make sure you are on the same page as you are talking to your child, you need to make sure that “water” means the same thing to you.  If you’re sure your kiddo has got this, move on to Step 2.

Activity ideas:

  • “Water” scavenger hunt—This is the most naturalistic strategy of these three ideas. Simply put, I would encourage you to print out and laminate a 3” x 3” picture symbol for “water”, such as this Boardmaker Online one by Mayer-Johnson. Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 8.12.20 AM

Start by “labeling” water to your child around your home. When you turn on the sink and your child touches the water, say and show the picture symbol for “water.” When you turn on water in the bathtub or shower, say and show “water.” When you give your child a drink and have them choose between milk and water, say and show “water”. When you go out in the community and your child runs to a fountain, say and show “water.” When they get in the pool, say and show “water.” You’ll control the game at first, but as soon as your child starts to get it, give them their own picture symbol for “water.” (You’ll each have one now). Allow them the opportunity to show YOU what they know. Take turns trying to find water. Lastly, you can switch it all around and play the “find the water” game, saying “where is water?”….“here it is!”

  • A simple picture book—You could also introduce the concept of water in different places using a picture book. Frequently you might find these at the library in the children’s non-fiction section. You will be looking for a book that shows that water is a drink, water is in pools, water is in the ocean, water is rain, etc. Come up with a simple carrier phrase for you to say on each page, such as “A pool….A pool is (filled with) water. Rain…Rain is (made of) water”, etc.  (the parenthetical phrases are the ones you add if you think your child’s language level permits it and it’s appropriate to the book)
  • A simple social narrative—If your child is not yet reading with comprehension, I would encourage you to “subtitle” the narrative using a visual symbol program such as Boardmaker or Lessonpix. Here’s an example “definition” social narrative for water.

I Like Water

I like water.

Water makes fountains.

Water makes oceans.

Water makes rain.

Water makes puddles.

Water makes pools.

I like to look at these things.

Sometimes I like to touch them too.

Water feels wet.

Sometimes water feels hot.

Sometimes water feels cold.

Sometimes I drink water from a cup or from a bottle.

I can look at water.

I can touch water.

I can drink water.

I like water.


Step 2: Set the Boundaries for Water

My favorite way to teach a set of rules for kids with characteristics of ASD and/or language delays is to lay it all out for them in a social narrative. The boundaries, or the rules you make for your child concerning water, should be tailored to your child’s tendencies, preferences, and language abilities.

For instance, if your child goes to wash his hands and remains fixated on the water for an interminable period of time, you will need to add a caveat into your social narrative that goes something like “I can put my hands in the water. I can wash off the bubbles.  When the bubbles are gone, it is time to turn off the water. I can touch the water later. It is ok.”

If your child has a tendency to try to climb in the fountain at the mall, you will want to set rules for water that includes looking and touching with hands (assuming they could even reach the water). An easy way to make sure that your kid doesn’t jump full on into the water is to make the feet off limits. If you’re ok with your kid jumping in puddles always, then you’ll need to write a specific caveat for that. If you’re fine with your child dangling his feet off a dock, you’ll need to write a specific caveat for that. The point is that, in your “rules” social narrative, you need to specifically detail out the body parts you are ok with them getting wet without asking, as well as the body parts you want them to ask about before they do. Make sense?

Below is an example social narrative that you may be able to tweak to make fit the specific needs of your child. If your child is not reading with comprehension, I would also encourage you to make a book like this one: My Water Book, that allows the visual support to aid in their comprehension of the language and concepts.

My Water Story

I like water.

I like to touch water.

Sometimes I can touch water with my hands.

Sometimes I can touch water with my feet.

[optional addition (lines 5-6): I try to ask Mommy if I can touch water with my feet.*

Mommy is happy when I ask her before I touch water with my feet.]

Sometimes I can get in water.

I need to ask Mommy if I can get in water.

I might say, “may I get in the water, please?”

Mommy is happy when I ask to get in water.

I can try to ask Mommy before I get in water.

*The optional lines 5-6 above cover the jumping in puddle scenario I mentioned above in a very specific rule bound way. Sometimes your kid is wearing rain boots, and it’s ok. Sometimes he’ll will be wearing tennis shoes, and you might not want him to jump in a puddle. But, if he asks you before he gets his feet wet, you can cover the situation without having to teach him the specific reasons for your decision. As a side benefit, they can’t go run into the ocean without getting their feet wet, so this also protects you from a potentially dangers swimming situation.


Have fun playing with water this week! Next time, we’ll specifically address the critically important issues of swimming safety and teaching the process of safely going swimming with your child.

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