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July 2023 Water Safety Champion of the Month: Stacey Hoaglund

Every year, numerous drowning incidents occur, claiming the lives of both children and adults. However, there is a particular concern when it comes to individuals with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The risks associated with water safety for those with ASD are often overlooked and misunderstood, leading to tragic outcomes.

Our July Water Safety Champion is mother to a person with Autism and a passionate advocate for water safety initiatives for persons with Autism.

We are honored to celebrate our July Water Safety Champion of the Month, Stacey Hoaglund!

Finding the Courage To Be the Voice of a Movement

Stacey’s son was diagnosed with Autism at a young age. Early on, she prioritized water safety and ensured that both of her children received swim lessons. But it wasn’t until 2018, when she and her son were on a trip to Washington, that she came across a news broadcast from Florida about a child with Autism who tragically drowned. 

Stacey admits that for years she expected others in the Autism community to take the lead, but after years of silence, she realized she needed to be the voice. 

Her water safety advocacy journey started by reaching out to a friend who was a lobbyist in her state, who connected her with two women leading movements in South Florida, both who worked for the Department of Health and both who had lost children to drowning. Their lived experiences and determination ignited a sense of purpose within her.

Overcoming Challenges and Misinformation

When she first stepped into the water safety space, Stacey noted that the lack of information and awareness regarding water safety and individuals with Autism was a grave concern.

According to available data, 50 drowning incidents have been recorded in 2023, and of those, 8 individuals had been diagnosed with Autism and wandered away from home. Wandering is a significant risk for those with Autism and can lead to emergency situations, like drowning.

One of the challenges Stacey found on her journey was that pediatricians and teachers lacked information regarding water safety. Parents of children with Autism often find themselves needing guidance on preventive measures or the importance of swim lessons for their children. In some cases, they may prioritize therapies over swim lessons, particularly if their child has communication difficulties. This information gap leaves children with Autism vulnerable to water-related accidents.

Drowning Prevention Strategies and Advocacy Efforts

Autism presents unique challenges, particularly when it comes to generalizing skills. Children may learn to swim in a specific setting, but they may struggle to apply those skills in different environments. The reliance on water wings can also create a false sense of security, as individuals with Autism may mistakenly assume they can float in any body of water.

Stacey notes that many times, swim instructors are trained in teaching neuro-typical children to swim but do not have experience or understanding of children who have Autism or other developmental disabilities. Many families are hesitant to enroll their children with special needs in swim lessons due to the lack of knowledge of teaching techniques. Recognizing this barrier, efforts have been made to provide resources and training to water safety instructors to ensure they are equipped to teach individuals with Autism effectively. The Autism Society of Florida has also sought funding to support swim lessons for individuals with Autism who may not be able to afford swim lessons.

As a resource, the Autism Society of Florida, where Stacey is President, runs a program that trains parents of children with disabilities, including Autism, on how to advocate for systems change. She has also collaborated with organizations and lawmakers to raise awareness and implement effective drowning prevention strategies for parents of children with Autism. Most recently, Senator Anna Maria Rodriguez from Miami has confirmed her legislative support for the drowning prevention of children with Autism in Florida.

Making an Impact on Legislation and Community Outreach

While progress has been made in advocating for water safety, there is still room for improvement. One crucial aspect that requires attention is raising awareness.

Marketing campaigns should be more aggressive, emphasizing the importance of active supervision and vigilance when it comes to water safety. Additionally, school systems play a vital role in disseminating information on drowning prevention, and initiatives like the “Every Child a Swimmer” legislation of 2021 can contribute significantly to reducing drowning incidents.

Engaging the community is crucial to the success of any initiative. Throughout her time as an advocate, Stacey has formed relationships with various stakeholders, including schools, fire chiefs, and organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Surgeon General. These collaborations allow for policy work and the dissemination of information to the broader community. Support groups for parents and families also provide a platform for sharing experiences, concerns, and water safety resources.

More work is needed to bridge the information gap, provide accessible resources, and engage the community to ensure that water safety programs are in place for individuals with Autism. Through collective efforts, we can strive towards a world where every individual, regardless of their abilities, can safely enjoy aquatic activities and prevent tragic accidents.

Thank You For Making A Difference In Water Safety!

Water safety is a pressing issue, especially for individuals with Autism, who face unique challenges and risks. Thank you, Stacey, for the strides you’ve made in reducing drowning incidents among this vulnerable population!

Thank you for being a Water Safety Champion!

If you are making a difference in water safety and drowning prevention or know someone who has, we want to hear your story. 
Please take a moment to share the story on our website for a chance to be nationally recognized as a Water Safety Champion.