Sensory sensitivity is a common characteristic of children with autism. Strange surroundings, loud noises, bright lights, and a lot of physical activity all can be overwhelming to autistic children. That can turn a school bus ride into a nightmare for child and school bus driver alike. Getting an autistic child to school in safety is a bus driver’s main task, but seeing to their needs enroute is not within the purview or experience of most bus drivers.
It’s a unique situation that forces a child to deal with other children, information, and unfamiliar transitions and people, which is a lot to put on an autistic child’s plate. But there are some things that school bus drivers can do, in conjunction with a child’s parent, to help make what can be a very disturbing experience bearable.
The Americans with Disabilities Act allows children with disabilities to take service dogs on school buses, which is a great benefit for autistic children. Service dogs are often used to give autistic individuals a calming presence and a reliable companion. This could prove very valuable for a child who’s struggling with the idea of getting on a school bus. A service dog can instill a valuable sense of confidence and self-reliance in an autistic child.
Perhaps the most important thing school bus drivers can do to help an autistic child is to establish a set routine that provides a comforting familiarity. Try to make the daily bus ride another part of the student’s familiar routine, so that he’ll come to expect it, which will make it easier for him to cope with it. As long as it’s consistent and predictable, he’ll stand a better chance of coming to terms with it. To do that, parents will need to make sure their child is familiar with both the driver and the route he’ll take every morning, so the sights and experience become reassuringly expected.
Drivers should talk with parents or guardians about the child’s special needs; understand how it’s important to keep things as routine as possible, to avoid causing a meltdown; and be supportive of maintaining a pattern and keeping things nice and calm. There are also GPS-type devices that will allow parents to communicate with their child when necessary.
With some autistic children, you can talk through the situation and help them identify what they find upsetting about riding on the school bus—and let them know you’ll do what you can to mitigate the situation. This is a process that both parent and bus driver can team up to help improve, so the better and more often parents and drivers communicate, the better.
As a driver, you can also use stories and scenarios to reassure an autistic child that everything will be alright. Try telling him that you’ve had other children who were nervous about riding on the bus, but that they were able to get used to it, ended up liking it and made lots of friends.
Another reassuring tactic is to reinforce the fact that the child’s mother or father will always be there waiting for them at the end of the route. It’s likely to help an autistic child feel better, knowing they can depend on seeing a loved one’s face at the end of the day.
Remember, the most important thing is to establish a calming, regular routine an autistic child can get used to and which will help him feel comfortable. Talk through the situation and help him understand that the routine will remain the same every day.
Editor’s Note: Jenny Wise is a mother to four amazing children, and she devotes her time to finding resources that may enhance their educational experience. She created her website SpecialHomeEducator.com to provide help for others in the education field. She loves providing advice for parents and educators alike.