Children with autism at heightened risk of drowning; an expert offers safety advice

HOUSTON – Lindsay Naeder was saddened by the news that 5-year-old Los Jones had drowned in a retention pond Thursday.

Naeder, Vice President of Services & Supports, Community Impact at Autism Speaks, said roughly half of children with an autism spectrum disorder wander off, adding that many are drawn toward water.

“We really don’t know why specifically they’re drawn towards water,” Naeder said. “We need a lot more research into that, but what we have seen with some people during instances of wandering is they’re seeking out something specific like going towards a favorite restaurant or moving away from something that they dislike like really loud noises, maybe sirens from a firetruck. But others still have unknown causes and with Autism, every single child, every single adult on the spectrum is different.”

RELATED: ‘It’s a tragic situation’: Body believed to be missing 5-year-old who wandered away from Katy-area home found in pond

Drowning is among the leading causes of death of individuals with autism, according to the National Autism Association.

Naeder said when a child with an autism spectrum disorder is reported missing, Autism Speaks advises first responders to “search water first.”

Nearly one-third of parents whose children are on the spectrum reported a “close call” with a possible drowning, and in 2009, 2010, and 2011, accidental drowning accounted for 91% of total U.S. deaths reported in children 14 and younger with an autism spectrum disorder.

“We see children with autism that are known to wander, parents and caregivers will go to incredible lengths to try to keep their child safe,” Naeder said, “but as a child grows and develops they’ll learn how to circumnavigate some of those safety things.”

Naeder explained that it’s crucial to have a “really comprehensive” safety plan in place and consistently update it as a child develops.

“One thing that we’re always talking about is having a multi-layered approach to safety,” Naeder said. “Physical safety within the home, making sure that the doors and exits are secured, that there’s constant supervision if required, is just one part of that. Life takes you in and out of different settings so making sure that the safety plan rolls across and applies to all settings.”

Autism Speaks provides a safety kit to help caregivers develop “a multifaceted safety plan specific to a person with autism’s unique needs.”

The kit includes these resources:

Naeder also recommended swimming lessons adapted for those with autism and other special needs.

Regarding locating devices and tracking technology, Naeder said she has seen some families have success including such strategies in their safety plans.

“The one thing we caution is just not relying on technology as the only source of peace of mind,” Naeder said. “Really, the safety device is only as good as its inability to fail and if you ever use your cellphone and you go into an area where there’s no service, it can be very unexpected where all of a sudden the device fails.”

KPRC 2 spoke with a neighbor named Thalia. She asked to not show her face on camera but said her 4-year-old grandson was also diagnosed with autism. She said keeping him away from bodies of water is challenging.

“When I would take him around the pond, he loved the water and he would go straight to it, not understanding the danger. Even though he’s nonverbal, I would talk to him and tell him, ‘It’s dangerous, it’s dangerous. You have to hold Grandma’s hand,’” said Thalia.

The neighborhood is holding a vigil for Jones Friday at 7:15 p.m.

For more information and safety recommendations, watch KPRC 2 reporter Corley Peel’s full interview with Naeder below or visit

About the Authors:

Briana Zamora-Nipper joined the KPRC 2 digital team in 2019. When she’s not hard at work in the KPRC 2 newsroom, you can find Bri drinking away her hard earned wages at JuiceLand, running around Hermann Park, listening to crime podcasts or ransacking the magazine stand at Barnes & Noble.

Corley Peel is a Texas native and Texas Tech graduate who covered big stories in Joplin, Missouri, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Jacksonville, Florida before returning to the Lone Star State. When not reporting, Corley enjoys hot yoga, Tech Football, and finding the best tacos in town.