Understanding Children With Autism

An expert on the disorder explains the reasons behind students’ disruptive or inappropriate behavior and offers tips for how pupil transporters can respond to improve the quality of students’ lives in and outside the school bus.

No cargo is as precious or as vulnerable as children with special needs. Transportation personnel are trusted by parents to deliver their children to and from school in a physically and emotionally safe environment. Transportation personnel are trusted by teachers to deliver their students to school in an environment that helps prepare them for learning. This is a task that is brilliantly carried out day after day in cities and towns across America – many thanks go out to our hardworking and unsung heroes in transportation.

Sometimes children with special needs could benefit from a little extra support and understanding while learning how to successfully ride the bus. When adults understand the child, his or her disability, and the child’s perspective, the environment on the bus can be conducive for safety and learning.

Children with autism, in particular, are sometimes fearful and confused during the bus ride. The manifestation of this fear and confusion sometimes results in disruptive and challenging behavior. The neat thing is that strategies for addressing these issues will work for all students with special needs. The same strategies work for typically developing students as well.

The nature of autism
Children with autism have difficulty understanding and establishing meaningful social relationships. They can also become overwhelmed with too much sensory input, and communication is difficult for them.

Frustration and fear are amplified when adults don’t understand why that child, who seems to be really smart, chooses to act and react in a socially inappropriate or immature manner. I hear people say, “He acts weird,” or, “He has no social skills.” Yes – he has autism. I also hear people say, “He is doing that on purpose.” No – he has autism.

Teaching proper social behavior
Students with disabilities often lack the necessary skills to be successful in social settings, and if you think about it, school buses and schools are social settings.

A student’s chronic social failures, which are sometimes baffling to us in the neurotypical world, can trigger anxiety and depression. We may think the student is being rude, but in reality, that student is in a state of confusion regarding what to do, how to do it, how to react, and perhaps, why he has to ride the bus again (he may think, “I already did it yesterday”). He may also have trouble coping with a substitute bus driver, thinking, “What if the driver gets lost?”

One shouldn’t think this student is acting immaturely on purpose. He needs a “do-over”; he needs to be specifically taught a new repertoire of behaviors – behaviors that typical kids have already learned.

Students with autism and other special needs want and are sometimes desperate to have meaningful relationships, but sometimes they don’t know how to go about getting them. Therefore, we need to teach the seemingly obvious. We also need to teach students who don’t know how to ride the bus successfully how to do so. For example:

  • We may need to teach a student how to observe a peer’s or teacher’s non-verbal behavior and decide what it means and how to react to it.
  • We may need to teach a student how to initiate a social interaction, how to have a give-and-take conversation and how to end that conversation.
  • We may need to teach social cognition, how to accept a different perspective or recognize the perspective of someone else. The world can be very restricted, confusing and frightening if you don’t have the ability to figure out what someone else is thinking and predict his or her behavior.
  • We need to teach the “hidden curriculum,” such as how to respond to unfriendly teasing, how to exit the bus, how to know when it is time to stop talking about their favorite thing or how to be flexible with a schedule or route change.
  • We need to teach that idioms and metaphors are not literal. For example, if someone says, “See you later, alligator,” he is not calling you a reptile. For a concrete thinker, idioms can be very disconcerting.
  • We need to teach bus riding skills: how to tolerate standing in the bus line, boarding the bus and clicking the seat belt. We may need to teach what to do in an evacuation drill and when to know that the bus has arrived at its destination. We may also need to teach these students that wheelchairs on the bus are OK and that service animals on the bus are OK, but bicycles and pets are not OK.

Academic skills versus social skills
In the case of Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism, pupil transporters should understand that a student may have high academic skills, may be earning high scores, reading college-level text books in an area of interest to him or accomplishing amazing memorization feats, but that same student may not realize that telling a bus driver how to drive is not acceptable, or that standing too close to someone can make him or her uncomfortable. That student also may not realize that just because a girl says “hi,” she is not his girlfriend and may not want to share a seat with him on the bus.

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