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Riding on the Autism Spectrum

No. 121, June 2017

By Shona Casola

Taking public transit can be challenging for anyone, but can be even more so when a rider has difficulty with waiting, loud noises, strong smells, or confined space. This is the reality for many individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who ride school buses and city transit routes every day.

ASD is a life-long neurological disorder that affects the way a person communicates and relates to the people and world around them. ASD can affect behaviour, social interactions, and one’s ability to communicate verbally and non-verbally (through gestures, facial expressions or body language). ASD is a spectrum disorder, which means that, while all people with ASD will experience certain difficulties, the degree to which each person on the spectrum experiences these challenges will be different. Individuals diagnosed on the autism spectrum can experience difficulty with both social communication1 and restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour2 in varying degrees of severity. (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This can result in difficulties with new environments, new people, unfamiliar routines, processing verbal and non-verbal communication and navigating unwritten social “rules” that most of us can intuitively follow. In some cases, individuals may experience anxiety or increased sensitivity to sensory information and as a result, may engage in self-regulatory behaviours as a way to cope with and manage this stress or anxiety.

As drivers, educators and bus company managers, there are many things you can do to help make the ride a smooth one for individuals on the spectrum. With back-to-school in mind, I will focus this article on children riding the school bus; however, many of these strategies may be applicable to those of all ages riding on other types of transit as well.

  1. Have an assigned or regular seat. Individuals on the autism spectrum typically thrive on routine and consistency. Since the predictability of a regular seat can help to calm anxiety, place the student in a location that is least intrusive to their sensory needs. A designated spot can also help facilitate social skills as they may be located around the same children daily and might begin to interact and build relationships. 
  2. Be conscious of their sensory needs. Noises, smells and/or the temperature on a bus may be challenging to a rider on the autism spectrum. The individual may also be very sensitive to touch and may appear to overact if someone lightly touches them, or bumps into them in the aisle. While there is little you as a driver can do to prevent smells, sounds, crowding or to control the temperature, it is important to acknowledge the potential impact these variables can have on your rider. Imagine trying to concentrate on parallel parking the school bus while listening to nails scratching on a chalkboard. The regular sensory information on your bus may be this intrusive to someone on the autism spectrum. Knowing this can help you approach them with a greater degree of understanding, should they begin behaving inappropriately on your bus.
  3. Post visual supports and a list of bus rules. Many individuals on the spectrum have difficulty processing verbal information, however, when information is presented visually, they are better able to understand and make sense of instructions and expectations. Working with parents, caregivers, and educators, you can learn to use a calming routine or visual support that may be helpful to your rider on the autism spectrum. These routines and expectations can be posted at the front of the bus (where they will be of benefit to all riders) as well as in the individual student’s seat or in another place that you feel would be helpful for them.
  4. Words can be tricky to process. While you can put up visual supports for things you can predict, there are times when verbal instructions are still necessary. In this case, it is important to acknowledge that some people diagnosed with autism need short, clear sentences, particularly when they are upset. Being calm, clear and direct with your instructions (such as “sit down” rather than “please take your seat like you’re supposed to”) can be beneficial. It is also important to provide time for the individual to process the instructions, so try to count to five or ten in your head before repeating your instruction. For some people, it can take much longer than ten seconds to process and respond appropriately to the instruction and adding words, such as “I said, SIT DOWN”, may delay processing time even more because there is new information for the child to consider. In an emergency situation, be as calm, brief and clear, as possible, with your instructions, while balancing your responsibility to get them out safely.
  5. Routines and changes. With regular riders, the route itself can become part of their routine. There can be things along the way that become comforting to see, such as a particular building, or counting the number of fire hydrants the bus passes. Construction, collisions and route changes can disrupt this. It is important to give riders as much notice as possible about these changes and to recognize that there may be an upset reaction as a result. Having comfort objects, toys or electronics that keep students busy during the ride can help with this frustration when it does occur. Connect with parents, caregivers, or educators to arrange for comfort objects to travel with your rider.
  6. Do not force eye contact. For many of us, eye contact is a sign that people are listening to what we are saying. For many people living on the autism spectrum, however, looking a person in the eye can mean they are unable to listen and focus on what you are saying because it is too distracting. Rather than insisting on eye contact, you can ask individuals to repeat back to you what you have asked if they are able to, to confirm they have heard you. Asking them to say it in their own words can also help to confirm they have understood you.
  7. Behaviour. When riders act out this can be very disruptive and distracting for the driver and other passengers. Individuals on the autism spectrum may have times when they experience sensory overload (too much sensory input) or stimulation, when disruption to their routine has occurred or when they are having a difficult day and these experiences can lead to unwanted behaviour on a bus. When this happens, try to remember that their behaviour is a form of communication that is telling us about the difficulty they are experiencing. When you need to intervene; calm, clear instructions are best, paired with any visual supports you may have available. Sometimes it is as simple as writing your expectation down on a paper and giving it to the student. It is also important to recognize that individuals may behave or respond in ways that are unexpected for someone their age.
  8. Build relationships! When you make a point of remembering a person’s name, a favourite item or special things they have told you, they become more comfortable and this can help the ride go more smoothly. Relationships are also important to establish with parents and caregivers, as well as siblings who may also ride on the bus. Building relationships is not always easy but is well worth it!

By working to make riding the school bus or public transit easier for individuals on the autism spectrum, you make life easier for the people who care for them as well. You create opportunities for people to have equal access to their community and to feel included. This is invaluable.


[1] Social communication challenges refer to persistent difficulty with social interaction across multiple contexts and include frequent struggles with understanding another persons’ perspective, non-verbal communication, and difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships. 

[2] Restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities can include motor movements, insistence on sameness and inflexibility, highly restricted passions frequently in uncommon interest areas and sensory sensitivity.