By Lynne Adkins

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Keeping autistic children safe near the water is a major issue as drowning is the leading cause of death for them.

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Many autistic children don’t speak and that may cause problems for lifeguards or caregivers, according to Dr. Varleisha Gibbs, assistant professor of occupational therapy at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

“If the child is not responding to them, that’s one indicator they may have autism,” Gibbs says. “We want to make sure we approach a child in that way, in a least threatening manner as possible, coming down to their level, avoiding light touch that may trigger a response from them assuming that it’s a threat when it’s not.”

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Since autistic children may wander, Gibbs says investing in swim lessons for special needs children is a great idea. She says many groups offer special classes. She says lifeguards and caregivers should be aware that some autistic children may be impulsive.

“If the child is a risk taker, they may not have a problem with running and jumping into the pool,” Gibbs says. “We need to educate everyone around them in how we can prevent that, if they will tolerate a life vest, finding a lifevest that works for them.”

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