I thought they were kidding when they said my three-year-old son would be taking a school bus to his preschool. Let me get this straight. My nonverbal, three-year-old son would be taking a bus? By himself? Without me? How is that even possible?
Prior to learning he had autism, Lucas was already the baby of the house. He was always in our sight, and, like most babies, received the bulk of the attention. As we began to find out about his special needs, that mindset carried over, and I was always very concerned with keeping him safe.
No matter what we did or where we went, I always worried about how he would be. No parent wants their kid to be upset, but when you have a child who can’t communicate easily, it puts a difficult twist on things. In the early years, I found myself always trying to guess ahead of time what he might want or need. That was my job, and I was happy to do it. I couldn’t imagine things any other way.
That was a different time, though. Now he would be embarking on his academic adventure, and the only way to get him there was through a school bus. Although it came directly to our door, the thought of letting him go was still difficult.
I pictured the first day long before it happened. As is usually the case, our imagined perception of how things will go never matches reality. Thankfully so, because the scene in my head was straight out of a Lifetime movie. Tears. Closing doors. My outstretched hand. “Noooooo! Not without my son!”
Worry doesn’t make time stop, though, and when the day finally arrived, I braced myself for the sure-to-be-awful exchange. The moment of truth was upon us. This is how it went:
Bus pulls up.
“Hi Lucas. Let’s get on the bus to school. Say goodbye.”
Sound of footsteps, closed doors.
Bus drives away.
Vroom. I stood there for a few seconds, unsure if the bus would be making a return so we could play out our catastrophic Lifetime movie. After weeks of stomach-turning worry, that couldn’t be it. Could it?
It was. In fact, three years later, it still is. To this day, he’s never had an issue with the bus. It turns out I was the one who had the real problem. Lucas could handle it. In fact, he could handle lots of things. I just wasn’t aware of them because I had spent so much time trying to play protector to a boy who was far less fragile than I realized.
That doesn’t change the fact I’m still here to protect him. Ever since the first day, I’ve made it a habit to stand by the window until the bus drives off. Through rain, snow, sleet, and hail, I’ve waited patiently—sometimes for minutes on end—while he takes a seat and looks through the window. I also wave incessantly.
The excitement of looking through the window usually trumps any wave back. Most days, it doesn’t even matter that I’m standing there. He never looks my way as he settles into his seat, but I keep going anyway. He’s my little guy. Autism spectrum or not, I always want my child to know that I’m there to protect him. With my daughter, I can simply say, “I’m always here to protect you.” With Lucas, it’s not as straightforward. My goofy, grinning dad-face in that window every morning is my way of telling him. Of course, he probably already knows that, but it doesn’t matter.
Truth be told, it’s not really about him. It’s about me. Lucas is fine. He’s been fine from the start. It’s about learning that I don’t always need to physically be there. I don’t have to beat myself up about sending him on the bus, because he can handle it. If he can’t, there is the matron or the driver there to help. It’s about learning I can let go and trust others will have my son’s best interests at heart. While that’s not true in every instance, it’s been true up until now. It’s given me a sense of relief that sending him out into the world isn’t as impossible as I imagined at the start.
I still stand there until the bus rolls away. I still jump at the chance to run and get him if he needs me. The difference now is I know he most likely won’t. If he does, though, I’ll be there waving and ready.
James Guttman has been writing for 15 years and introduced his blog earlier this year. James writes about parenting both of his children (one nonverbal and one non-stop verbal), self-reflection, and all that comes with fatherhood. His mix of humor and honesty aim to normalize the way people view raising a child with special needs and show that parents are all basically the same, regardless of the children they’re raising.
This article was featured in Issue 65 – Back-To-School Transitions