Interestingly enough, this was a common and persistent question throughout the first three years of public education for Alex. In the matrix of autism treatment, there must be a class special education administrators take that emphasizes the need for autistic children to be transported by bus to improve their “socialization” skills. I have had two principals who gently and repeatedly insisted that my son would be better off if I would let him go on the bus.
Really? Have you ever seen what goes on the bus -- especially the short bus with pre-school autistic children. I doubt that they are singing “The Wheels on the Bus go Round and Round”. Instead (and yes I have watched these and other buses) they seem isolated and alone. They seem, sorry to say, abandoned.
We selected a pre-school for Alex’s early intervention that would be 30 minutes away from our home. That would amount to a whole hour of little or no interaction with others. I immediately saw this as an opportunity to generate all sorts of activities while keeping my dad off the road (he was almost 90 years old and needed to stop driving for everyone‘s safety). Explaining to my father that I needed his car to transport Alex, I mounted a drum on the back of the passenger seat which placed it directly in front of Alex. We played all sorts of music on the CD player and he would bang away on the drums. Later, I would announce every road we passed, each town we drove through, and any landmark worth mentioning. Afterwards, I would do a few errands while keeping my dad safely off the road. My father would eventually stop driving. This was a difficult time at home caring for both my young son and aging parents.
Early on, Alex was not very verbal. He was, however, always listening and quite observant. Whenever he did speak, he usually made interesting comments in response to what he saw. Occasionally I might miss the point or meaning of what he was saying, but I would always do my best to try to interpret and understand. Once, while it was raining, Alex was fixated on a triangle. He saw it and wanted to make sure that I understood what he meant. After a few minutes, I pulled the car over and tried to get a better idea on what he was saying. Eventually, I realized that he had discovered a space created on the lower part of the front windshield where the two wipers did not meet. That space formed a triangle on the windshield. While not necessarily a ground-breaking observation, it was a notable one -- and more importantly -- he wanted to communicate that point. Remember, he began speaking later in life and I was determined to let him know that every word was worth its weight to be heard and understood. I still treasure his observations today. If he were on the bus and saw that, I doubt there would be anyone there for him to communicate that discovery, and that would be frustrating for him.
Our rides to and from school eventually created a rich database of knowledge about how our towns and communities are fundamentally connected by roads with distinct names, boundaries with clear markings and stores, homes and businesses that serve the local community. I would purposely make mistakes on street names and towns from time-to-time and Alex would always correct me. Eventually, I would call him GP-Alex since he was fast becoming the expert on roads and seemed to always know the best route to get around. Once, when caught in a sudden traffic jam, Alex explained to me that, “… if we turn around and take Larking Drive, turn right onto Freeman then right onto Dunderberg and then turn left, that would avoid the traffic and get us home faster.” He was six years old and yes, he was absolutely correct (I made the u-turn and got home much sooner). He continues to be my primary source on issues concerning directions. You couldn’t ask for a better navigator on your trip.
Our trips also included a diverse repertoire of music on CDs that allowed Alex the opportunity to play along on the drums. I suspect that to some degree, the tactile satisfaction of playing the drums helped to calm him and also created a solid understanding of rhythm. Additionally, the music became a source of comfort for him that held his anxiety at bay. Today, music has become a major influence and he does quite well on cello, piano, voice, and yes, drums. He studied snare drum for one year when he was nine and resumed studies the summer he turned thirteen. All of this progress, to some degree, was fostered through those early car rides.
After the pressure subsided about Alex taking the bus with other children, his first teacher shared an article with me entitled “Car Talk”. When I first saw the title of the article, I thought it was about the two car mechanics on NPR radio. It wasn’t until weeks later that I read the article. It was amazing that Alex and I instinctively might have gotten something right! The article -- and I wish I had it today -- discusses the great difficulty that autistic children have conversing. This socialization skill is further complicated by the challenge autistic individuals have in decoding facial expressions. In fact, the confusion compounded by facial communication becomes so intimidating, that I suspect they would rather not come “face-to-face” with the issue and avoid conversations as a result. Subsequently, conversations become awkward and poorly articulated without the subtle nuances accompanied by facial expressions and tonal deliveries. That is where Car Talk addresses the issue so successfully.
When Alex and I travel in the car, he sits in the back, behind the front passenger seat (obviously, I am in the driver seat). This places us diagonally across from each other. Since I am not looking directly at him (but he can clearly see the back of my head) it is more comfortable and not confusing for Alex. He has me in his sight, but the back of my head presents no threat since there is no eye contact or facial expression to decode. Our environment is electric with all sorts of activities; music, geography and ongoing conversation -- even if only with me speaking -- all are a continual part of the trip and ultimately a normal part of each and every day. This would not happen if Alex went on the bus.
Alex has grown quite a bit and we still listen to all sorts of music and discuss maps, landmarks and new ways to get there. Oh, and now he sits in the front. He doesn‘t necessarily look at me, but he is much more comfortable and very talkative.
Very nice. So much for socialization on the short bus.