The dangerous attraction of water to children with autism - KCTV5 News

The dangerous attraction of water to children with autism

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Alerting the community to the dangerous attraction to water held by many children with autism has become the mission of the Autism Society of the Heartland and Colwich, KS, mother Sheila Medlam.

For five beautiful years, Medlam spent her days and nights with son Mason; laughing, dancing and reading.

"He was amazing. He was absolutely the best son anyone could have," she said. "He was the other half of my soul."

Diagnosed with severe autism, Mason was totally non-verbal. But Medlam says that didn't stop her son from living life. When he saw fun, she says he went for it.

"He would elope a lot. Which would be where we would be with him and if you let go of his hand, he would immediately take off for whatever he saw that grabbed his attention," Medlam said.

It's something many children with autism do and experts call it wandering. Jennifer Smith, president of the Autism Society of the Heartland, prefers to refer to it as "kids on a mission".

"They know where they want to go," Smith said. "They want to go down the street. They want to go to that pool. They want to play with that dog. They want to see their friend. But yet, they are not communicating that to us. They also fear no danger."

On July 27, 2010, Mason went on a final mission. When the air conditioner went out in the family's Colwich home, Medlam propped small fans in the bedroom window.

"He had pushed the fan and the screen through the window, taken all his clothes off and escaped through an 8-inch opening," Medlam said.

A short 17 minutes after that escape and 30 emergency crews on the hunt, it was Medlam who found Mason in a shallow pond across the street, only a quarter of a mile from home.

"He was face down in the water," she remembered. "I'm looking down at my son who has a blue mouth and a blue nose and completely lifeless and I'm thinking to myself, 'What do I do? How do I get the water out of him?'"

Mason died two days after that discovery.

"It shattered us," Medlam said.

The Kansas mother learned drownings like this are all too common among children with autism. In fact, it's the leading cause of death.

"Almost every autistic child is drawn to water. They will play with water for hours and hours and hours," she said.

According to Smith, "When a child is in water, it is like this big hug that they're relaxed and comfortable in water."

In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in 88 is diagnosed with some form of autism. When Smith learned of the drowning deaths of several children with autism across the country early this summer, she decided to take action and partner with the YMCA to offer water lessons specifically designed for children with autism.

Aquatics Director Courtney Meyer designed the one-on-one format being taught.

"Our goal is not to teach them to swim; the stroke development," Meyer said. "Our goal is to get them oriented to the water to learn safety skills."

For instance, Meyer says the class focuses on teaching children to blow bubbles to avoid breathing in water.

"Blow it out like a birthday cake. Blow your candles out," Meyer said.

Kendra Young's 5-year-old daughter Bianca is enrolled in the swim classes for children with autism. It's popular with mother and daughter for very different reasons.

"I like swimming," Bianca said.

After six weeks of classes, Young says the progress her daughter has already made gives her some needed peace of mind for her sometimes wandering ways.

"She's drawn to water, very much so," Young said. "We have pond behind our house. So she's always jumping in water."

Medlam hopes all parents who can, will take advantage of these lessons.

"You have to layer your child with levels of protection," she said. "If you can give them water-safety skills, that's amazing."

The Autism Society of the Heartland hopes to create a comprehensive campaign on water safety, beyond the swim lessons. They want to train local emergency personnel to react differently when looking for a child with autism; to begin their searches at the closest body of water. The group believes it's a change that will save the lives of children like Mason.

"Every night I ask God to watch over my son ‘til I can have him again," she said.

Medlam has a website dedicated to the deaths of children like Mason ( and her mission to alert the world to the dangers of wandering and water.

To learn more about the Swim and Safety Program and the Autism Society-The Heartland visit

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