PEORIA — Lauren Gray’s perspective on water safety was forever changed when her younger brother, who has Down syndrome, nearly drowned while on a family vacation.

Gray now works as a certified occupational therapy assistant at Easterseals Central Illinois along occupational therapist Katie Pena.

In a recent study conducted by by Angela DeLost, director of motor therapy services for Easterseals, the No. 1 cause of accidental death for children with autism was found to be drowning. This coincides with the National Autism Association’s finding in 2009-2011 that accidental drowning accounted for 91% total U.S. deaths reported in children 14 and younger with autism spectrum disorder.

When Gray discovered this, memories of her brother’s incident haunted her and it got her thinking about what she could do to prevent another kid from becoming a statistic.

From that moment on she made it a goal of hers to work hard to ensure that no other family would have to endure the nightmare that her family did. So, she examined the pool programs closely and recognized that Easterseals offered swim lessons and pool therapy for children with disabilities, but did not offer anything that was geared specifically towards safety concerns of kids with autism.

Gray’s pilot Water Seals Group launched in early June with the help of Pena, who coordinates the pool programs for the organization. The program consists of eight hourlong sessions on Thursday evenings and is offered to children ages 5-8 with autism and sensory processing disorder.

Gray wanted to create a safe space for these children to learn water safety skills that are specially designed to meet their learning and social needs. She utilizes a visual story board and narrative with visual aids and lots of short, simple, stern language. The program even offers videos to go along with each session for the students to review.

Many of the skills Gray teaches are things that traditional swim lesson instructors would breeze through in the first session — like how to wear a life vest, how to blow bubbles, use a kickboard, safely jump in the water.

Children on the autism spectrum have impaired communication and difficulty with social interaction, creating potential challenges in social settings with other kids because of their more specialized needs that can be easily overlooked or misunderstood.

Pena explained that some families may have difficulties bringing children with autism into social settings like a public pool because the children have a difficult time listening and they may run or misbehave. Others may assume that the child is bad, but Pena explained that they just need extra care and patience.

“When kids don’t understand the rules, it keeps families from being able to participate in the community,” said Pena. “So if they can learn those skills it can help them transition into an actual swim class or even just have fun with peers in the community.”

Helping the kids integrate into social settings with other children is always a priority.

Five colored mats sat in a line on the floor of the warm water therapy pool at Easterseals. Students sang and danced along to the music that echoed throughout the aquatic center as they sat in the laps of the volunteers that were paired with them. The Water Seals Group prides itself on its one-to-one volunteer-to-student ratio.

Stephanie Hodge, 27, of Spring Bay is a student at Illinois Central College where she is part of the occupational therapy assistant program. She heard about this program through a classmate who was working with Easterseals for her clinical rotation. In the fall, Hodge will start her pediatric clinical rotation and wanted to get some hands-on experience working with children with sensory processing disorders.

“When you think about autism, you might think that you can’t connect with these children because they don’t know how to connect … but walking in here the first day I knew we were going to be to build a rapport with these kids and we have,” said Hodge.

Hodge was partnered with Hunter Spencer, 6, and said that she has seen his listening skills and understanding improve each session. She said he is really good at kicking his feet and jumping.

While Hodge played a role in teaching Hunter his skills, Hunter taught Hodge something, too.

“Through doing this I have proved to myself that I am capable of changing somebody’s world, maybe not the whole world, but I’m going to walk away from here knowing that I changed his life, at least a little bit.”

Hunter’s father, Matt, said that Hunter loves water and looks forward to his weekly swim time. He said that Hunter is a confident swimmer, but he thinks this class is important in teaching him not to be over-confident and to understand that there are limitations.

As for some of the other kids, Gray has seen some of them taking on leadership roles, setting good examples for the younger students and encouraging the others to be more social. She has also found that they have made improvements in their impulse control and have become better at taking turns.

That is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job for Gray. She enjoys seeing the children advance in a variety of different skills all because of a program that she started.

With the success that the group has seen thus far, Easterseals plans to continue offering the program. The organization is only able to accept six kids per eight-week session, but staff hope to provide some resources to the community to help raise awareness about the need for educating others about water safety concerns, disability or not.

For more information on the program, those interested can visit

Grace Barbic can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @gracebarbic.