HOLIDAY — Aidan Bower loved trains and airplanes. He loved putting on costumes from the dress-up box at Longleaf Elementary School, where he had attended a program for kids with autism since he was 2.
"His favorites were the Power Rangers," said Janice Whittaker, the school's speech pathologist who had seen Aidan progress from a silent, withdrawn child to one who smiled during the class circle time and could vocalize his needs.
"More juice, please," he would say in a high-pitched tone that melted Whittaker's heart.
Like many kids with autism, he also tended to run away.
"I live in a prison," said his mother, Cindy Bower, who had installed triple locks on the front door to keep Aidan from wandering off.
Despite her efforts to secure her special-needs preschooler, he managed to push a screen from his bedroom window and crawl outside his home at 4219 Pinefield Ave.
Shortly before 9 p.m. Sunday, about an hour after Aidan's mother put him to bed, he was reported missing, a Pasco County Sheriff's Office report said. Deputies found him about 15 minutes later, a block away, in a neighbor's swimming pool.
They gave him CPR. He was airlifted to St. Joseph's Hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead.
As investigators took photos of the scene, 84-year-old Marilyn Marchese arrived at her house at 4216 Sail Drive.
A deputy told her about the boy who was found in her swimming pool.
"She got very upset," the report said.
A crying elderly woman who answered the door Monday afternoon declined to comment to the Tampa Bay Times.
Deputies are calling the case an accident but are still investigating, sheriff's spokesman Doug Tobin said.
A screen cage enclosed the pool, but the door was unlocked, Aidan's relatives said.
Fascination with water and attempts to escape are not uncommon with autistic children, said Dr. Karen Berkman, executive director of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida.
"Some families who have kids that are very crafty and motivated to get out the door have resorted to having to put safety locks on doors, door alarms, other things to protect their children," she said.
She said the motivation is hard to explain but "sometimes our kids are very attracted to things they may want to go look at or touch or pursue in some way without regard for their own safety. Some kids may dart right across the street because they see something they want."
As for attraction to water, Berkman attributes it to a desire to get stimulated or calm, which kids with autism need quite often.
"For some children, it's almost like they're hypersensitive to things around touch or around their other senses, and they look for things in the environment to calm that. So if you can think of the sound of water, or water running on you, or being immersed in water — it's very calming and quiet there. You can block out all the distracting and disturbing sensory perceptions you may have that can cause overload."
Aidan's teachers say his parents were involved in his education and did their best to keep him safe.
They are raising money to help the family, which has three other children, including a 2-year-old.
They also will make sure his nine classmates learn to swim.
Said Whittaker: "That may be our next crusade."