Orlando child drownings outpace last year as summer begins

·4 min read

As school lets out and summer ramps up in Central Florida, so do concerns about the leading cause of death for children ages 1-4, particularly kids on the autism spectrum: drowning.

In May alone, a toddler in Seminole County drowned in the swimming pool of his daycare after leaving the building undetected. On the same day, a 2-year-old in Orange County was pronounced dead after he was found unresponsive in his family pool, and a week later a 4-year-old in Osceola County drowned in a pool while at a party with his father, according to reports from the Florida Department of Children and Families child abuse hotline.

The most well-reported recent drowning death was of Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shaquil Barrett’s 2-year-old daughter, Arrayah, on April 30.

“There’s this notion that it could never happen to you, but it does. It happens frequently here in Florida,” said Florida Department of Health-Orange Health Officer Dr. Robert D. Karch. “No matter the educational level, socioeconomic level, it happens across the board.”

As of Thursday, there have been 36 child drowning deaths reported to DCF, compared to 28 this time last year. Eight — 22% — were in metro Orlando, compared to 5 this time last year.

Kids with autism are at the highest risk in large part because they have a heightened tendency to wander off and typically have an affinity for water. They also struggle to identify and respond to dangerous situations.

Six of the 36 Florida children who fatally drowned so far in 2023 had autism spectrum disorder, even though only about 1 in 36 children has autism.

“When they tell you that your child is showing signs of autism, the number one thing that they should tell you is that children with autism have a high tendency to wander away. So keep an eye on your child. You live in Florida. You need to be aware of water because it’s everywhere,” said Stacey Hoaglund, mother of an adult son on the spectrum and president of the Autism Society of Florida.

Drownings almost always occur when children enter pools without their parents’ knowledge, and typically happen quietly and quickly — 30 to 60 seconds is all it takes.

“Everybody thinks that drowning is like it’s portrayed in the movies. The kids are screaming, they’re yelling, ‘Help me, save me,’ splashing. When in reality, drowning is silent. You just slowly slip under the water. And you’re typically not screaming because you don’t have the breath,” Hoaglund said.

Other initiatives in the Sunshine State aim to remedy its status as the U.S. leader in drowning deaths for kids under 5.

A law passed in 2000 requires residential pools in Florida to have at least one safety measure: fencing directly around the pool, safety covers, door alarms or self-latching doors. Karch, Hoaglund and other experts recommend families have at least two and don’t think of those barriers as a replacement for adult supervision.

Swim lesson scholarships are offered by private nonprofits such as the Gunner Martin Foundation, which recently partnered with the Seminole County Fire Department to offer Seminole County residents free pool alarms.

Children’s Medical Services received $2.8 million to recur annually in Florida’s 2022 legislative session to focus on preventing sudden, unexplained infant deaths and drownings. Most efforts are currently focused on raising awareness.

But there are still ample areas of needed improvement. Neighborhood retention ponds often have no barriers and have been responsible for several drowning deaths in recent years, Karch said.

Though children who know how to swim still drown, water safety lessons reduce that risk.

Hoaglund is lobbying Florida legislators to allocate additional funding for swim lessons for kids with autism whose parents can’t afford them.

These kids will likely need one-on-one instruction in quiet environments because they are easily overstimulated and need more patience, attention and structure when learning these skills, said Katie Pabst, director of clinical operations for the Florida Autism Center’s Northwest Florida division.

“It could take longer, but it’s definitely still possible,” said Pabst.

The Autism Society of Florida, as well as the Florida Autism Center’s parent company, Blue Sprig Pediatrics, offer tips to swim instructors on how to instruct a child on the spectrum.

Ccatherman@orlandosentinel.com; @CECatherman Twitter