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Are People With Autism Drawn To Water?

July 19, 2012

The BBC Ouch blog carried a very interesting post yesterday asking this question:

Against all odds, a missing autistic man was found after three weeks in a remote unforgiving Utah desert last week.

William Martin LaFever, 28, was said to be emaciated and could not stand when he was found sitting in a river 40 miles from where he set out.

It seems that a bit of luck was on LaFever’s side as, when the call went out, it happened that one of the rescue team had recently had some training on finding people with autism, and put the helicopter in just the right place.

The LA Times reported that local deputy Ray Gardner’s training had “taught him that those with autism are naturally drawn to water, so the helicopter search focused on the Escalante River.”

They didn’t expect to find him alive and, judging by his emaciated state, guessed he would not have survived another day.

The notion that autistic people are “drawn to water” has caused a bit of a buzz on autism discussion forums like Wrong Planet.

Pixelpony writes: “I am kind of obsessed with flowing water. Nifty water features and mountain streams are like an on switch for happy. I can stare at them for ages. Even better if I can get down to the water and wade in it, play in it, float things in it, splash in it. Mountain streams are the best though – the water is always cold and clear. Fountains can be good, but they are often warm, which isn’t nearly as good.”

Jediyoda said: “I love waterfalls, running streams when I go 4×4 wheel driving; it’s so soothing and relaxes me. When I was young Mum and Dad used to put me in the bath to settle me down even as I got older and if I have a meltdown I go and have a shower or, if I’m at Mum and Dad’s or my friends’ house, they go fill the bath up and I sit in the bath listening to my music. [In] about half an hour I’m back to normal.”

But Joe90 is confused by the water fascination talk: “I don’t know where they got this from. I’m not drawn to water, I never even drink water. I prefer juice or milk or coke or other drinks like that.”

London-based Robyn Steward trains professionals about autism and is on the spectrum herself. She doesn’t believe that there is a generalised “draw” or love for water in people with autism, but can imagine that some people could be distracted by its look: “There are people on the spectrum who get fixated visually with patterns. For example, people get coins, spin them and sit and stare. Autism affects how visual processing works, there are some who need lots of stimulation as they’re under stimulated.

“I’ve had clients who have refused to have showers, it can feel like being pelted by little golf balls, but they have enjoyed a bath as water isn’t being fired at them. Others might hate it as it could make them feel like they’re on a ship. It’s all sensory.”

The media reports don’t shed further light on the training but Robyn believes it’s unlikely to be related to a survival or innate water-divining instinct, she says: “Water makes patterns, ripples and stuff.”

LaFever was on his way to Page, Arizona. His family suggested he should hitch but he decided to hike along the river and then try to catch a boat. Whether he was drawn to the river as a result of his autism, because he was thirsty or thought it a good navigation aid through the rocky featureless terrain, perhaps isn’t the point. He was, however, very lucky to be found by a police officer who had a plan thanks to recent training.

I know I have several regular readers with knowledge of autism, so I thought I’d open up this discussion here.

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