Council Update: Council, Community take action on water safety for children with autism

At least 63 children with autism have drowned in Florida since 2021 – with 10 of those drownings happening in Palm Beach County, according to a study by Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County staff.

The study – believed to be the largest of its kind in the United States related to autism and drownings – identified 109 drownings in Florida involving children with autism since 2012. The number of drownings involving children with autism has increased substantially in recent years from 4 drownings in 2020 to 23 drownings in 2021.

“Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County hopes that this study encourages a much larger conversation about autism and water safety in Palm Beach County, in Florida and throughout the country,” said CSC CEO Dr. Lisa Williams-Taylor. 

The study followed the Palm Beach County drownings of three children with autism within a five-month span, from the end of 2022 and into early 2023. Senior Communications Specialist Jon Burstein first collected public records and news reports to examine drownings in the county, but then his research grew to cover the state.

The study found:

  • The majority of all children age 5 years old or older who drowned in Florida from Jan. 1, 2021, to Dec. 31, 2023, were autistic. Of the 53 children age 5 or older who drowned, 31 had been diagnosed with autism.

  • Eighty-three percent (91 of the 109) of the drowning victims with autism were male.

  • In the majority of the cases studied, the child wandered away from home before drowning. In 68 of the 109 cases examined, the children drowned in ponds, canals, lakes or a neighbor’s unattended pool. In many of the cases, the children drowned just yards away from their homes.

In anticipation of the findings, Palm Beach County child safety advocates already are taking action to address autism and water safety, and the report recommends further steps.

In response, the Palm Beach County Parks & Recreation Department and the Palm Beach County School District have reached an agreement to allow 175 students at Gove Elementary School in Belle Glade to receive swim lessons during the school day. Gove Elementary recently had two children with autism drown in separate incidents. CSC has agreed to cover transportation costs as well as the cost of towels. In addition, CSC is working on an agreement to fund a pilot program created by Autism Society of America to train water safety instructors on working with children with autism. That program currently is scheduled to begin in June with 10 water safety instructors at Small Fish Big Fish Swim School in West Palm Beach. The report also recommends CSC fund safety boxes for families with an autistic child, as well as new messaging and marketing materials to ensure families of newly diagnosed children are aware of the dangers of wandering and water.

Please click here to view the report. For a copy of the report with an appendix detailing all 109 cases, please contact Jon Burstein at or 561-374-7616. 

In other business

Community Alliance: The Council authorized CSC CEO Lisa Williams-Taylor to enter into an agreement with a consultant to oversee the work of the Community Alliance. The alliance includes community leaders who focus on child welfare and work to improve the system. The main duties of the alliance are to establish community priorities and strategies for achieving better child outcomes. The alliance committee members will contract with a consultant for up to 16 months for a maximum of $118,000.

Fiesta de la Primavera: Staff informed the Council that representatives from CRL, our vendor that supports CSC’s Familias Latinas Facebook group, attended Fiesta de la Primavera at Hispanic Human Resources Council in Palm Springs on April 6. The event, designed to engage and support the local community, successfully attracted a diverse group of attendees, primarily parents and children from the Hispanic community. About 30 new members signed up for our Familias Latinas Facebook group and many parents who already are engaged with the group attended the event, showcasing our strong connections in the community. The highlight of the event was our food pantry distribution, which attracted many attendees.

Video Campaign: Staff informed the Council that CSC’s Communications Division launched its latest video campaign in mid-April with expert advice to help parents navigate conversations with their teen on difficult topics. Videos covered such subjects as vaping, self-harm and mental health concerns. The videos featured therapists from our Teen Triple P (Positive Parenting Program) implemented through Center for Family Services and Community Partners of South Florida. In addition to videos in English, we also created three longer videos in Spanish to be featured in social media campaigns and on our Familias Latinas Facebook page.

BAM!: Staff informed the Council that Children’s Services Council once again supported the BAM! Festival: a books, art and music festival for authors, illustrators and performers who write for children and young adults. The April 13th event at the Mandel Library in West Palm Beach provided a countywide literary experience for authors, teachers, students, families and the community to share their love of books. As in previous years, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Public Defender’s Office arranged for an author visit to the Palm Beach County main jail and Juvenile Detention Center.

This year’s author was Nic Stone, author of young adult and middle school fiction, best known for her debut novel Dear Martin. Stone answered the youth’s questions about her experiences as a Black author and all received a copy of her signed book Shuri: A Black Panther Novel.

CSC will reimburse the Mandel Library Foundation for the purchase of 100 copies of the book to be distributed to children in the community and supplement additional requests from the detention sites. DJJ-involved children who participate by reading the book, writing essays or having conversations, and/or attending any of the author events will receive community service hours to assist in satisfying either court sanction or court costs.

About Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County

The Council is a local, special-purpose government created by Palm Beach County voters in 1986 and reauthorized in 2014. For more than 30 years, it has provided leadership, funding, services and research on behalf of the county’s children so they grow up healthy, safe and strong.

If you have questions related to Children's Services Council of Palm Beach County and/or media inquiries, please contact Shana Cooper, Public Information Officer.