Minnesota woman on mission to save children with autism from drowning

- Kadin Okerstrom is mesmerized by water but has no comprehension of the danger—which is why kids like him are 160 times more likely to die from drowning than other children.

“My biggest fear was that he would fall in the lake or go into a lake or body of water,” said Marjorie Okerstrom, Kadin’s mother.

That fear is common among parents of children with autism. The developmental disorder impairs communication and social interaction.

One day, when Kadin was little, he ran off—as autistic kids are prone to do. He wandered through thick brush, getting numerous cuts and scratches along the way in order to enter a lake without knowing how to swim.

“When my husband got to him he was already up to his waist in the weeds in the lake,” recalled Okerstrom. "He pulled him out and Kadin was like screaming."

Nothing was going to stop Kadin from going deeper into that lake, until his father came to the rescue.

“I was freaking out and [my husband] said, 'I think he’s screaming because I took him out of the water,'” said Okerstrom.

Children with autism have a fascination with water. There’s something about it that’s soothing. They’re drawn to it, often with deadly consequences. Drowning is the leading cause of death for these kids.

DROWNING IN ST. CLOUD

Not all families have been as fortunate as the Okerstroms to stop a tragedy in the making.

In 2015, a six-year-old boy on the Autism spectrum disappeared from his St. Cloud home. The massive search ended when the child’s scooter was found four feet from the shore of the Mississippi River.

Diver’s later discovered the boy’s body a short distance away.

SPECIAL SWIM INSTRUCTOR

Julie Schuett is devoted to helping families who live with the constant fear their special needs child could be the next accidental drowning victim.

“The work I do is not easy by any stretch of the imagination,” she said.

Schuett has been a swim instructor for 30 years and in the last decade has focused on teaching kids with autism.

“I have students that just go down under water and they won’t come back up," she said. "I have to physically pry them up from the bottom of the pool and they have their mouths open. They have no sense of breath control or what’s going on. They just love how it feels.”

One of her students is Kadin.

Schuett found a way to hold his attention and gain his trust. She’s taught him how to do the front crawl, float on his back and tread water.

When he started taking lessons a few years ago, he would go underwater with his mouth open. He didn't grasp the concept of holding his breath.

He finally got the hang of it after Schuett had him practice humming in the water.

“I know he can get calm and relax and get air and be on his back," she said. "I know he can do it, so I would pray that if that should happen that he would do that."

The families who bring their kids to Schuett are looking for peace of mind. They never know when their child might run off and head for the nearest body of water. 

They want them to at least have a chance to survive before help arrives.

INSTRUCTOR’S SCARE

Schuett can relate to the panic that sweeps over these families. Twelve years ago on Mother's Day, she and her family of five were visiting Prior Lake. Nobody noticed her 15-month-old daughter had disappeared.

Then her husband spotted what he thought was a blue colored doll in the water.

"I feel so grateful that I know CPR and that my husband got her and ran her to me," she recalled. 

The story has a happy ending. 

"If my mom didn't do that I wouldn't be here, which is so cool,” said Jackie, Julie’s daughter.

The trauma of almost losing her own daughter is what drives Julie to help kids like Kadin.

He finds joy in the water and his mother is no longer paralyzed with fear, something she never thought possible. Schuett worked her magic.

"It's been a long process, but yeah, I don't have that constant fear of if we're not watching him every second that something horrible is going to happen," said Okerstrom.

According to researchers, the drowning threat for autistic children is so high parents should get them enrolled in swim lessons as soon as they're diagnosed with the disorder. Typically, that is between the ages of two and three.

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