ORLANDO, Fla. — Community members are taking a harder look at measures to prevent the deaths of children after a second Central Florida boy drowned in a pond near his home in two weeks.
Earlier this month, three-year-old Axel Caballero’s body was found in a retention pond after he wandered away from home. Five-year-old Aaron Peña’s body was pulled from a retention pond after a 12-hour search near his Lake Nona house Wednesday and Thursday.
“The door’s always locked, but I think recently he’s figured out a way to unlock it,” Peña’s mother, Michelle Stanton, said, mentioning that the boy was attracted to bodies of water.
Both Peña and Caballero were on the autism spectrum, where both wandering away from home and being drawn toward water are known factors. Researchers have found children with autism are 160 times more likely to drown than the general pediatric population.
“It’s soothing,” Champion Autism Network Executive Director Becky Large said. “Sometimes if somebody has a tantrum or a meltdown, [you] put them in the bath or the pool or the ocean.”
She called some children “elopers,” a name that references their habit of eloping, or wandering off. Not all children with autism are habitual wanderers, she said, but it’s a major source of stress for parents of those that are.
The first step toward keeping them safe is preventing them from wandering. Large recommended locks placed high up on doors, out of the reach of small children. She also suggested installing a chime or a bell to alert when the door opens.
However, no solution is foolproof. Large suggested tracking programs that use a bracelet to alert parents when their children leave a designated area, and can help them track their child down in real-time.
She said her group is exploring a new theory involving searches: playing a child’s favorite music (hello, Baby Shark) may be more effective than calling out their name. Children on the spectrum are naturally drawn toward their favorite happy tune, she said, while they may believe they’re in trouble after wandering off and hide when they hear their name shouted out.
Like their general population peers, though, many children with autism can be taught how to swim or float starting when they’re less than one year old to protect them in case they do fall into the water. Large said it might take a few extra rounds of classes, but the kids eventually catch on.
“If you had this process on how to teach swimming, you would have to go over and over and over again,” she said. “They need repetition.”
Several Orlando-area programs offer swimming classes and lessons specifically geared toward children on the autism spectrum. However, one of the typical modifications to help the kids – smaller class sizes or individual attention – creates another problem: lack of availability.
“Like most programs for children with autism, there aren’t enough,” she said. “Having enough people to support those services where there just aren’t enough, here, there, anywhere.”
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