Individuals with Autism at Substantially Heightened Risk for Injury/Death

Autism spectrum disorder, or simply autism, is a developmental disorder that significantly impacts how a person sees and engages with his or her world. Autism can affect an individual’s emotional reactions, language development, body language, and comprehension of the intentions of others. Autism has a broad spectrum, with many levels and ranges in abilities. About one in every 68 children is born with autism. A recent study by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health connects autism with higher risks of personal injury and related death. Here are the key highlights of their findings.

Autism and Accident-Related Deaths: Facts and Statistics

The study screened more than 32 million death certificates to find 1,367 autistic individuals with deaths between the years of 1999 and 2014. The annual number of deaths among people with autism rose by almost seven times in these 15 years. The study found that average age of death for people with autism is 36 years younger than the general population (36 versus 72). Suffocation is the leading cause of death for autistic children, followed by asphyxiation (deprivation of oxygen) and drowning. Over 40% of autism deaths occur in the home.

The study revealed children with autism are 160 times more likely to die from drowning – and consequently dry drowning – than the general pediatric population. Dr. Li, the founding director for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University, states that many children with autism have an affinity for bodies of water. Impaired social and communication skills can encourage children with autism to seek the escape and serenity of a body of water. Children with autism are also more likely to wander. These factors combined substantially heighten the risk of drowning.

The lead author of the study, Joseph Guan, points out that, while the data is startling, he believes statistics for autism as a contributing cause of death likely underestimate the larger picture. This is due to the inaccuracy of information on death certificates – the data researchers limited the study to. Until now, the relationship between autism spectrum disorder and personal injuries/death has gone largely understudied. This new information points to a major concern regarding the safety of individuals with autism and the legal rights of parents or legal guardians in the event of an accident.

Accidents and Lawsuits Involving Individuals with Autism

Based on the findings of the Columbia University study, Dr. Li strongly recommends all parents of children with autism enroll their children in swimming classes as soon as possible. He suggests swimming lessons before occupational, speech, and behavioral therapies, as an “imperative survival skill.” Many tragedies occur at home in residential swimming pools. Teaching your children to swim as early as possible may save their lives. It also helps to know how to respond to a water emergency.

In the event of injury or death on someone else’s property, you may have grounds to file a lawsuit depending on the circumstances of the accident. Property owners have a duty to keep their premises free from known or obvious hazards. Swimming pool accidents are common in premises liability lawsuits. Even if your child was trespassing at the time of the drowning incident, the courts may hold the property owner responsible. The law mandates keeping swimming pools safe from invited guests and trespassers who are minors. This includes installing a fence, barrier, or pool cover to prevent accidental drowning.

Despite the higher risk of injury among individuals with autism, this condition does not bar a family from filing a lawsuit in the event of an accident involving injury or wrongful death. Property owners, supervisors, employees, drivers, schools, and other entities still have a duty to prevent harm to others. If someone else’s negligence resulted in your child’s injury in California, contact a lawyer right away. You may be eligible to receive compensation for medical bills, pain and suffering, and other damages.