MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. (WMBB) — State statistics show most child drownings are under four years old.  The Autism Society of Florida says children on the spectrum are 160 times more likely to drown than other kids. 

An emergency doctor at Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast says parents need to keep their heads on a swivel this beach season.  

“These rip currents are very dangerous, and they can carry the most excellent swimmers out to sea. We do see drownings every year as a result of that,” said Emergency Medical Director Dr. J.P. Hill. 

The Autism Society of Florida said 26 children have drowned so far in 2023. Dr. Hill said drownings are the number one cause of death in autistic children under the age of 10. 

With a natural draw to the water, Walton County doctors said children with autism are at a higher risk for danger. 

“Kids with autism are drawn to the water for some reason. I think it’s kind of a sensory thing. They love how the water feels on their skin, and they have a lack of a perception of any kind of danger so that combined can kind of make a dangerous recipe. Especially with their tendency to wander off without any kind of warning, that’s a pretty big safety issue in an area like this where there’s a lot of water,” said Dr. Hill.

With a son on the spectrum himself, Dr. Hill said the best thing to do is to introduce them to water early to teach them how to swim. 

“I’ve had multiple times where we would be near a pool for some sort of party or something like that and he literally would just go and jump in the deep end without any kind of warning,” said Dr. Hill. “Fortunately, shortly after we moved down here in 2015, he learned how to swim and he kind of just did it on his own with us in the pool every day over the summer. He actually swims amazingly well now which is a big comfort to me knowing that if we live around water, if he ever does wander off and end up in the water, I think he’ll be safe at least.”

Long-time swim instructor Catherine Brannon says working with kids on the spectrum is not very different than teaching other children.  

“Autism children are just like everybody else. Most autistic children are a little bit sensitive to loud noises, so usually want to put them in a smaller class,” said Aquatics Director Catherine Brannon of Whole Life Fitness

For parents, Brannon says she has some tips to make that beach trip safer for everyone. 

“Number one, take the age of the child, which makes it very simple. If you have a three-year-old, then you just make sure that you stay within 3 feet of them. If you have an 8-year-old, you need to be within 8 feet of them. That means whether, at any body of water, a pool, a bay, or the beach, you have to be with the child,” said Brannon.  

Brannon says accidents likely happen in the first ten minutes, or after an hour of swimming so take a break and have children wear lifejackets after that first hour. She says parents should also take a pool noodle to the beach for extra flotation. 

“The lifeguards are doing their very best. They’re there at the beach, but if you’re not near a lifeguard, take your own big noodle with you and also grab a whistle,” said Brannon.

Brannon has a history in pediatric care, she said if a child wanders off, their natural instinct is to walk away from the sun. Depending on the time you spend at the beach will help you look in the right direction if you lose sight of your child.