Tuesday, June 14, 2011

7-year-old Autistic Boy Found Dead in Creek - WAFB Channel 9, Baton Rouge, LA |

7-year-old boy with autism found dead in creek - WAFB Channel 9, Baton Rouge, LA Today my heart broke for a family I’ll probably never meet, over a child who could have been my son. I learned that, John Burton Jr., age 7, autistic, drowned in a creek near his new home. He was not familiar with his new neighborhood. His dog was unable to keep him from drowning.
This news triggered thoughts of February 27, 2009. The day the principal of my then 7-year-old son’s full special education school called to say the school had “lost” my son.

“This is bad”, she said. “This is very, very bad”. And in those few frightening hours, I learned things that would change me for the rest of his life and ours. He was supposed to have been in the care of a paraprofessional in plain view of 6 adults but somehow he disappeared. Could this be true? Had he overcome his fear of the dark miraculously acquired the OT skills to break safety latches and automatically locking doors when he was incapable of holding a pencil without support, and decided to make a jailbreak, running from the most restricted educational environment available in the public school system? Had my brave, nonspeaking, chubby little guy taken flight in bare feet, coatless in the chilling February winds? We learned that what we were initially told about what happened that day was completely untrue. Something more horrible had happened. But our story has a less tragic ending. A stranger found him, wet and muddy, but alive, and brought him back to us.

I have been homeschooling my son ever since. The most important segment of his physical education program is the swimming program. Not the water therapy he was getting in his special education school, but real swimming lessons, with dedicated instructors and his parents attending him. We will never know what happened that day unless our son should learn to type and tell us. But we realized our son needed to learn some life saving skills. We urge all parents and care providers of autistic children and adults, particularly nonspeaking ones, to find someone able to teach your children/ adults to swim. All children, autistic or not, will always be very attracted to water. Teaching children to survive in the water might save their lives even when a faithful dog cannot. Think your child or adult carries too "severe" a function label to learn to survive in the water? Anyone can be taught water survival, even if they can't swim. This video gives a brief introduction of a swim to survive program, one that all special needs families should have available here in the U.S. but we don't: 

Read about what the Dan Marino Foundation is doing to save lives by training people to teach neurodivergent youth to swim. http://www.danmarinofoundation.org/aquatics

I hope that families try their best to plan for events like moves from one home to another. Prepare your nonspeaking child's bedroom first; then sacrifice unpacking time to teach your child how to be safe in his/her new place. Marco Polo your offspring and keep them engaged and within view until the move in is at a stage where your child won't get lost in the confusion of movers and friends trying to place large items in the new home. Preparation could save your loved one's life.

I am not assigning blame to the family at all. Sometimes every precaution can be taken and things can still go very wrong. I send my deepest condolences to the Burton family. But for the grace of God, any one of us could be in the Burton family's position. The only thing we can do as care providers is plan, accommodate, and educate our loved ones.


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