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Your ATN@Work: Autism training for school bus drivers

With the prompting of parents, the staff of this Autism Treatment Network center created a model autism-sensitivity and skills-building program for school bus drivers

By Lisa Kanigsberg, a research assistant in the Autism Research Centre at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, in Toronto. The center is one of 14 North American sites in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.

“I hate sending her on the bus. Every day the driver has a complaint about her behavior. One day he started yelling at her because she was humming loudly and rocking – before the doors even closed!!! He won’t listen to me. Just says she’s not listening. I cry every morning.”

“At the beginning of the year, our driver asked me about my child. What helps him? What sets him off? What should she say when he’s upset and yelling? I feel so relieved that he has a great bus driver. Maybe this will be a good year.”

In our roles here at our ATN center, parents share all sorts of stories about their experiences. Of course, we’ve long heard about the teachers who don’t want to adjust their instruction styles to meet the needs of children with autism. We’ve also heard inspiring stories about teachers and other education professionals who’ve made it their mission to create a classroom environment that promotes inclusion and understanding.

There’s no under-estimating the need to train professionals in childcare and education to work with students who have autism. All children are more successful when they are supported by people who understand their strengths, weaknesses and needs. And how well a child with autism is primed for success – or failure – often depends on the training these professionals receive.

But while autism sensitivity is a part of many special education courses for teachers and school counselors, what about the other central figures in our children’s schools? With strategies and empathy, these professionals can likewise help each child reach his or her potential academically and socially.

As illustrated by the two quotes at the start of my post, many parents have shared their successes as well as their frustrations with the bus drivers transporting their children.

Many children spend as much as 2 hours a day on a school bus. This is particularly common for children traveling out of their neighborhoods for special-education classes.

Some drivers simply don’t understand the behaviors, sensory issues and communication needs that are so common among children who have autism. Others are knowledgeable and skilled and have developed their own strategies for making the drive and transition to and from school a success.

But the lack of consistent training leaves many parents anxious as each new school year approaches.

“Will my child get a good driver?”

“What will happen on the bus?”

“How will the school-bus experience affect the rest of the school day?”

This year, Philippa Howell, a parent on our ATN Family Advisory Board, suggested that we take a leadership role and create an autism training program for bus drivers.

Philippa also mentioned the idea to Mary Lawson, a supervisor at McCluskey Transportation, whose employees include 125 school bus drivers in our area. We booked a date!

Salina Eldon, our ATN site coordinator, and Cathy Petta, our registered nurse, developed a comprehensive presentation. It introduced the bus drivers to autism and its common symptoms, as you’ll see in some of the slides I include below.

They walked the bus drivers through proven strategies for supporting children on the spectrum and for responding to common issues that may arise on the school bus.

Salina and Cathy discussed a variety of situations that the bus drivers might encounter – for example, a child with autism who begins screaming.

Then they helped the bus drivers understand what a child with autism might be experiencing. They drew parallels to intense experiences such as walking into an extremely small, hot space.

“Imagine that the space is also crowded,” they prompted. There are sounds that feel like nails on a chalkboard, and strong smells that make you recoil like you’re smelling sewage.

“Now imagine that someone is yelling for you to hurry and get to your seat. How would you feel?” they asked.

The goal in this awareness building was to help the bus drivers approach our children and these situations with understanding and empathy.

The bus drivers in attendance were enthusiastic. Some of the feedback we received included:

“You’ve just described everybody on my bus! How did you know?”

“Now I understand why changing the bus route is so upsetting to one of my kids!”

“Very helpful. Thank you very much!”

And from the supervisor at the bus company:

“I would like to express my sincere thanks for a great presentation…. That was awesome, many of the drivers found it extremely interesting, because a lot of them did not understand about autism. Thank you so much.”

We hope that this is just the beginning of a great conversation and relationship with a group of people who are so central in the lives of our kids!

In closing, we’d like to thank the Autism Speaks community for supporting our work through the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.

* Learn more about the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network here.
* Find the ATN center nearest you 
* Explore our archive of ATN expert-advice blogs and news stories 

As part of Autism Speaks’ efforts to ensure the safety of the autism community, the organization has awarded $98,000 to Project Lifesaver International. Project Lifesaver serves approximately 18,000 individuals with autism who wear small personal transmitters that emit an individualized locating signal. If an enrolled person with autism wanders from safety, the caregiver notifies their local Project Lifesaver agency and a trained emergency team responds in the wanderer’s area.

Read more about Project Lifesaver here

You can find additional Autism Speaks resources for families and first responders to help prevent wandering hereVisit this page to report an active case of wandering.


The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.