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Rethinking School Transportation for Autistic Students

October 12, 2023

When it comes to understanding how their autistic child will be accommodated at school, parents have many resources at their disposal.

Rethinking School Transportation for Autistic Students

But experts advise that preparations for performance in the classrooms must start before the bell rings, and that a focused student transportation plan can aid in their overall education.

And, because the education equation for children with autism must consider each child’s individual needs, so too, should the process of transporting them to and from school.

Making Accommodations, Mitigating Anxieties

Internationally, according to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 54 children are now diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), causing developmental disability that often presents significant social communication and behavioral challenges. Since federal law requires schools provide children with the “least restrictive” environment possible, full inclusion in regular classes (a practice known as “main streaming”) can be a beneficial path for autistic children.

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But the practice places a tremendous responsibility on public school systems to make the necessary accommodations to ensure school is a place of optimal learning and implement plans to support every student’s success.

Anxieties and challenges vary when it comes to the school environment and each child responds differently. Routine is reassuring, priming students for what is coming up and what they can expect, while limiting disruption can enhance a students’ ability to learn new tasks or information.

Autistic children aren’t the only ones feeling anxious. Parents too, feel anxiety when sending a child to school every day – where they don’t have visibility into what is going on in the classroom. In fact, the only aspect of the daily school journey parents see is the morning pickup and afternoon drop-off of their child.

While this vital node in the school day is pivotal for children, school districts, and parents, to date its significance has been largely overlooked in the overall education continuum.

Student Transportation: Left Out of the Education Equation

Comprehensive Autistic Planning Systems (CAPS) take into account all of the events throughout the school day to ensure every aspect of students’ disabilities are being addressed. The concept is to make necessary accommodations to wrap the education around the child and their individuality.

It also provides school districts with a mechanism for clear communication with families, with empowering information on how the school is handling each child, helping to reduce anxieties and form a community of care.

While school transportation to and from school is a significant event that transpires each school day, many parents may be surprised to learn that student transportation (which is seen as separate from the schoolhouse) is carved out and not addressed by CAPS.

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This is a particular sticking point for Patrick Mulick, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, and certified speaker, trainer, and coach who holds an undergrad and master’s degree in special education and behavior analysis from Gonzaga University.

“I would argue that ‘school’ starts the moment a student steps out of the comfort of their own home and the school day isn’t over until they are safely transported home,” says Mulick, who works as an educational consultant and as the Autism Coordinator of the Auburn School District in Washington State. “We have to work to address this because student transportation is so significant for children with autism, I call it the ‘ultimate portable classroom.’

“I say this because it truly does take a village – we must all work together to provide the consistency that is needed for each individual child with autism. To do this, we all must embrace our role as the instructor and as part of the education continuum. We all have to recognize our capacity to impact students’ lives, and in this regard, transportation providers are educators.”

Implications for Student Transportation: Ensuring the Best Start to the School Day

Over the years, there’s been a movement to support special needs students with student transportation utilizing SUVs, minivans, wheelchair accessible vans and sedans. This alternative student transportation model provides several advantages to families of autistic children.

Greater flexibility for more comfortable accommodations.

For starters, the student’s specific physical needs are considered. Factors such as seating arrangements, wheelchair accessibility, additional equipment needs, and the possible need for a nurse/aide, are all considered to select the right vehicle. Having a multitude of vehicle options also offers the ability to support additional requirements for students with autism.

These can include accommodating the student’s preference to sit on the right-side of the vehicle or being accompanied by a favorite stuffed animal. As well, a quiet and more compact interior of a passenger car, for example, can provide a less intimidating transit environment than a large school bus.

Improved consistency and communication.

Experts advise that consistency is vital for autistic students so student transportation that pairs the student with the same driver, every day can go a long way toward providing stability, familiarity, security, and trust.

In fact, a best practice for special needs student transportation is a family “meet and greet” where the driver meets with the family so everyone can become acquainted. These parent/guardian meetings start the relationship off on a different level – one that’s less transit oriented and more about providing appropriate accommodation and communication.

Some transportation providers even equip their drivers with a document that outlines the child’s specific needs – think of this as an extension of their Individualized Education Program (IEP) specific to school transportation. It provides reassurance to the family that the driver has a personal and vested interest in meeting the student’s needs.

More direct routes, shorter commutes.

One of the biggest challenges students, parents and school districts often face is the issue of lengthy commutes. The length of an autistic student’s travel time to and from school can have a negative impact, and many states have laws stipulating maximum travel times.

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Having autistic students ride a bus that makes multiple stops on the way to school can expose them to lengthy travel times, as opposed to individualized routing designed to ensure a safe and direct route.

A school day for a child with a disability should not be longer or shorter than a school day for general education students. However, if a child’s IEP team determines that a student needs a shorter or extended school day, a more personalized transportation solution that can accommodate different pickup or drop-off times, is key.

When it comes to architecting the education equation for children with autism, one size does not fit all as each child’s individual needs must be addressed. By understanding the role of student transportation as part of the overall education continuum, we can begin to see how accommodations in student transportation may be necessary to ensure the autistic student is best positioned for success in school.

This article was featured in Issue 106 –Maintaining a Healthy Balance With ASD

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