Once upon a time on the school bus…

At the age of four, Kyle began taking a bus to the public school where his “head start” program was offered. It was not a bus specifically designated for special needs children, but a regular bus full of average grade school kids. At first, I liked that idea. I wanted Kyle to have as many normal school experiences as possible. And I think there’s something initially distasteful for parents about having a “handicapped” bus pick up their child. It’s an extra helping of reality when you’re already stuffed.

So the bus arrived on the first day of Kyle’s program, and I walked him up the steps and inside the door. I guided him to a seat. The children on the bus eyed me curiously. I can imagine what they were thinking: Why does that kid need his mom to seat him on the bus? And why is he so…small? And…different?

A Den of Wolves?

I didn’t mind their stares. We were just entering the bus, and they were seated like an audience facing us. What else would they be looking at? Yet I felt a sense of terrible dread build up inside me. I was leaving my small, autistic son on a bus full of older children. Was I abandoning him in a den of wolves? And sometimes Kyle had outbursts. How would the children react, if that happened?

There are so many things I know now, nearly a decade later. But in those days I was new at mothering a special needs child. I did as I was told, including accepting this bussing arrangement. Today I would have been more insistent upon safety measures and seeing that there was somebody other than the bus driver responsible for my son. A bus specifically for disabled kids would not have bothered me.

Facing My Fears

I told Kyle goodbye, and left him in his seat. As I started descending the first step, he suddenly made a long, high-pitched wail. It was a strange sound–not a yell or cry but something more alien. I stopped suddenly and turned around. And that’s when a child in one of the back seats mimicked the sound, and the entire bus erupted in laughter.

Let me tell you, rage boiled up inside me. This was one of my greatest fears as a parent—that my child would be ridiculed by his peers. Now I had directly witnessed it. In hindsight I will say that these children had no idea Kyle was autistic, and I’m sure the sound he made was rather bizarre for them. And because of my fears, I was extremely over-sensitive. But the mother bear came out in me, and I roared. Well, growled, maybe. I turned to the group with a sour expression. “That was very unkind,” I said sternly. “My son is autistic.” I stood for several seconds, glaring at them. A hush fell over the group.

I looked at Kyle, who seemed to be preoccupied with his own thoughts. Then I took a deep breath and descended the steps. As I walked across my front lawn, the bus revved up and headed down the street. For a few minutes, I sat on my front steps and cried. I kept asking myself, why am I so bothered by this? These are just kids. But I was frightened of what it might mean for my son’s future. Would Kyle grow up being laughed at?

Learning to Forgive Others

The next day at school time, I grew rather nervous when the school bus stopped in front of our house. Anxiously, I lead Kyle up the steps. As I guided him to an open seat, one of the child passengers stood up. He said: “Mrs. Riley (my name at the time), we are very sorry for not being kind yesterday.”

“Yeah, we’re sorry,” several voices agreed in unison.

I smiled with relief. “I appreciate that,” I said.

As I thought about the incident later, I realized that the only way for a student on the bus to have known my name was for the bus driver to have mentioned it to the children. So certainly he organized (or likely demanded) the apology. But I didn’t care; I was happy that the children had been encouraged to improve their behavior. And I felt better knowing that the mysterious silent bus driver was watching out for my son.

Kyle was completely oblivious to what happened on the bus that day. I was the one who experienced the anxiety, frustration, and a little grief. And much of it I created for myself with hyper-sensitivity and fear. I’ve had to learn not to create additional drama for myself, because I’ve already got enough to deal with. I’ve also learned, in time, that the reactions of others just don’t matter, as long as Kyle is happy.

Kyle is an experienced bus rider these days. He races out the door, grabbing his lunch, then stops at the bus door inexplicably for five seconds before climbing the steps. He high-fives the bus driver, then chooses his regular seat, six rows back. It’s always left empty for him.