FRISCO, Texas – Special needs transporters need a lot of empathy as well as thick skin to be effective in their jobs, especially when that includes providing service for students with autism.
So, too, do community stakeholders such as local police or sheriff’s departments and school resource officers. Anyone who is in regular contact with students on the autism spectrum, or who may come into contact with them, should be trained in how to properly respond to potential incidents on the school bus to ensure they don’t inadvertently escalate them.
Student transporters need to take a proactive role in communicating the needs and behaviors of their students and collaborating with first responders and law enforcement officials to ensure safety for all involved. That was the theme of Sunday’s general session “Fostering Positive Interactions with Autistic Students,” featuring two autism experts as well as a representative each from the local Frisco school district and Frisco Police Department.
Patrick Mulick, a board-certified behavior analyst and a special education coordinator for Auburn School District near Seattle, provided an overview of autism disorders, the fastest growing developmental disability in the U.S., and shared with attendees how these students experience the world.
He also discussed the social triggers they may experience during the school bus ride, including unexpected changes or a fixation with needing to sit in a certain seat or next to a specific person. Any aberrations to a schedule could often result in violent outbursts.
Kate Movius, owner of Autism Interaction Solutions in Los Angeles and a mother of teenager on the autism spectrum, shared that students may respond to a trigger by wandering away, or eloping. She said that close to half of all autistic children are prone to wandering and will attempt to roam from a safe environment, sometimes with tragic results. Accidental drowning accounts for 91 percent of deaths reported in children with autism under the age of 14.
“Traffic deaths come in second,” she added.
Another result of an outburst is the summoning of law enforcement to the scene. As individuals with developmental disabilities are seven times more likely to encounter law enforcement than general education students, she trains police and sheriff’s deputies in the Los Angeles area on how to best respond to situations involving anyone on the autism spectrum. Sunday, she brought the message to student transporters as well.
The goal, she said, is to share understanding of how autistic people see and experience the world. They can often lack impulse control, which if taken in the wrong context can result in police misreading personal conduct and escalating a situation unnecessarily.
When responding to a call they know to involve someone who is autistic, Movius recommended that officers turn off lights and sirens. They should involve the subject’s caregiver, if possible, and ask how they can help them. She also advised that only one point person by assigned to speak calmly and slowly to the individual, allowing as much physical space as possible. Officers and others need to avoid more than one voice speaking at a time.
She also said officers should allow the person with autism to engage in any repetitive behaviors such as rocking, jumping, flapping and pacing. “It’s their method of self-regulation,” she explained, adding that some people on the spectrum might appear they are instead on drugs or simply belligerent.
But they are most definitely not.
“When an autistic person is in crisis, their methods of dealing with stress might seem aggressive, strange, belligerent or downright disrespectful,” she explained. “Willful non-compliance is most likely the last thing on their minds."
Movius also recommended that responders take note of any special interests, for example cartoon characters or television shows, and use these to engage with the person. Try physically modeling your commands, for example, “Do this,” and use rewards, such as: “If you do this, then you can see Mom, go home or ride the train.”
Mulick said this requires an understanding of the behaviors and resulting training between school district transportation departments and police on proper de-escalation techniques and collaboration with parents.
The presenters then opened the discussion to Doug Becker, director of transportation for Frisco ISD, and Officer Avery Jones of the Frisco Police Department to discuss how the two entities work together, including a program that invites police officers like Jones to ride school bus routes with special needs riders.
The four also presented scenarios to the audience and fielded questions on both “what if” and real-life scenarios.
Movius said law enforcement has reported back to her that the training they have received on how to best interact with people with autism and other communication disorders has resulted in "saves" in the field, where officers or deputies have been able to de-escalate a situation without the need to use force.
Later Saturday, Mulick presented on the sensory perception deficits and disorders that students with autism can live with and how they can negatively impact their experience on the school bus. He likened autistic children's anxiety of riding the bus and attending school with many people's fears of public speaking. He advised a careful use of words when trying to communicate with autistic students as well as the importance of sharing bus-ride agendas and any known changes or deviations, foster an environment of accommodation, make the students feel as comfortable as possible and make their growth a priority.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article included a truncated quote that changed the meaning of a comment by Kate Movius on students with autism in crisis and how they are perceived to react to others. We regret this oversight.