Two deaths, two days: Experts weigh in on allure of water to people diagnosed with autism

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Two deaths, two days: Experts weigh in on allure of water to people diagnosed with autism (WPEC)

Two families on the Treasure Coast are dealing with tragedies that no family should ever have to face.

It is the second time in just 24 hours that someone with autism drowned in Port St. Lucie.

Police say a 4-year-old girl was found in the bathtub of a family home in the 2600 block of SW Harem Circle at 12:40 p.m. Thursday. They say the mother went to run an errand and left her 16-year-old daughter in charge.

After the daughter did some chores, she checked on the toddler and found her face down in the tub. She called 911 and gave her sister CPR until first responders arrived.

The toddler later died at the hospital.

On Wednesday, 30-year-old Joshua Marshall disappeared from the family home at around 2 a.m. and was later caught on surveillance video at a 7-Eleven about a mile from the house. That would be the last image anyone would ever see of Marshall alive.

After an extensive 17-hour search, a police officer and firefighters found Marshall’s body in a retention pond one-tenth of a mile from the 7-Eleven.

Port St. Lucie police say both cases to be accidents.

They are all too familiar stories for Dennis Debbaudt, a man who's considered an autism awareness expert.

“So sad,” said in reaction to hearing about the 4-year-old’s death. “Again.”

For nearly three decades, Debbaudt has been teaching first responders across the country about autism.

It’s something he knows a lot about, especially since his own son, Brad, is autistic.

“He’s not a flight risk,” Debbaudt said. “Not everybody with autism carries that risk.”

CBS12 News wanted to know why water can be so appealing to some living with autism.

“Water has all of the five sensory issues, attractions,” he said. “You can drink it. It twinkles. You can see it. Every body of water has a different aroma.”

Dr. Evan Sherman, who works in the pediatric emergency room of Palm Beach Children’s Hospital, says one of the keys to avoiding tragedies is constant supervision.

“It really only takes seconds, less than a minute, for an unsupervised child to drown in a bathtub,” Sherman said. “In less than 2 and a half inches of water, a child can drown. It really takes very little.”

As for Debbaudt, he says tragedies like these won’t stop, but autism awareness will help to make people understand how seconds can mean the difference between life and death.

“What is going to happen is predictable,” he said. “When it and where it will happen is totally unpredictable.”

Debbaudt also recommends all families with autistic adults or children should have a plan in case of emergency. This way, he says, they can act quickly when every second counts.

For more information about Debbaudt and autism awareness, check out his website.