Remembering Sidney: Drowning and Autism


My sweet little Thomas enjoying the ocean.

Last week, a little boy named Sidney Heidrick, from my hometown of Bay Village, Ohio drowned.  He was just 4-years-old and he had autism.

Sidney went missing on a Friday afternoon, when he simply walked out of his grandparents house in Sheffield Lake, Ohio and disappeared.  Officers arrived minutes later but could not find him.  The Coast Guard, the FBI and hundreds of community volunteers united to search for him.  They used aircraft, K-9 units, jet skis and boats on Lake Erie to try and find him.  Sidney’s body was pulled from the lake just a day later.

According to the National Autism Association, drowning is among the leading causes of death of individuals with autism.  Some experts say this is because children with autism often become overstimulated with crowds and escape to unsafe environments.

Water has always been a double-edged sword for our family.  Thomas absolutely LOVES water.  When he was a toddler, if he was having a bad day, a temper tantrum, or just needed a break from his brothers, a bath was the perfect respite.  We were so lucky to have a really large bathtub in our master bathroom that we could fill it to the top so Thomas could submerge himself.  It would calm him right down.  He loved it so much so that we began to call it his “water therapy.”  But at the same time, I could never wander too far from sight because Thomas would stay under water for dangerously long periods of time if I let him.  When we visited the ocean on our family vacations Thomas would head out to the waves, walking directly out into the surf, without pausing or looking back.  I remember following him out there smiling because of the joy he felt in the water but at the same time knowing if I wasn’t around, he wouldn’t have hesitated a moment to just keep going.  And that beautiful ocean we loved so much would have turned deadly for him, quickly.

Research indicates that nearly 50 percent of children with autism attempt to escape from a safe environment — a rate nearly four times higher than children without autism.  Dr. Varleisha Gibbs, OTD, OTR/L, occupational therapy professor at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, compiled the following summer safety tips to help parents relax and enjoy the summer with their children with autism:

  • Learn to swim. Enroll your child in swimming and water safety lessons as early as possible.
  • Visual learning. Use video narratives to discuss water safety, as well as outline specific rules and consequences related to poor safety practices.
  • Display reminders. For children who respond well to visual cues, consider placing STOP or DO NOT ENTER signs on all doors that open to the outside.
  • Key information. Make sure your child knows his or her name, address, and phone number in the event he or she is separated from family. If your child does not speak, he or she should wear a bracelet or necklace with identifiable information.
  • Avoid sensory-overload. Summer is the time for vacations, exploring new places, and sensory-overloading experiences. Try to prepare your child for what they can expect as they enter a new environment — whether it is a beach, pool, or even a restaurant.
  • Alert others. Communicate with your neighbors, whether at home or on vacation, and ask them to contact you immediately if they see your child wandering alone outside your home or property

“Swimming and aquatic therapy is actually a wonderful sport for children with autism because it can address many of their body’s sensory and motor needs,” said Dr. Gibbs. “By preparing and communicating with your child with autism, family, and friends, summer trips and activities can be much less stressful and more enjoyable.”

The tragedy of Sidney’s death hit really close to home for me, as I’m sure it does with all parents who have children on the spectrum.  And hearing little Sidney’s story touched our family deeply.  I don’t know if any of the strategies listed above will help prevent another drowning death of an autistic child, but I wanted to write about Sidney’s story in the hopes that it might help work to change that terrible statistic about drowning deaths and autism.

If you would like to donate to the family in his memory, a Go Fund Me page, called “For sweet Sidney,” is available at