On those days, I get back in time from dropping Phaedra off at school to help Bella get ready. We put on her shoes, coat, and seat belt harness. We sit on the couch, side by side, watching cartoons and chatting a little bit about what’s on her mind. Never about school, because that might upset her, and upsetting her right before the bus arrives is not a good thing. When the bus arrives in front of our house, she bounces off the couch and practically runs out the door towards it. I grab her just in time to give her a hug and kiss before the bus attendant helps her walk to her seat and buckles her in. I wave to her from the curb as she waves back through the window. I give her a thumbs up, she gives me her thumbs up (an index finger proudly pointing up). When the bus pulls away, she’s smiling. I like those days. I walk back to the house feeling relived that we successfully made it all the way through another morning’s routine.
Some days, I hate the bus.
Sometimes it’s because I’m running back in the door just as the bus arrives, and the rushing around makes Bella anxious. Sometimes she didn’t get enough sleep the night before, and the morning routine is just too much for her. Sometimes the world is just too much for her, and she can’t bear the thought of leaving her safe world at home for the more challenging world of school. There are days where Bella just can’t get on the bus. There are days when Bella just can’t get out the door. On those days, getting to the bus involves fearful tears and hesitant steps and careful pleading and judging eyes and insensitive words. The worst days are when I see her looking at me through the bus window and she’s crying, her face confused and hurt because she can’t understand why I’m just standing there instead of rescuing her from the bus and taking her back to our house, back to the people that understand why these things are so hard for her. I don’t get a thumbs up those mornings. When the bus pulls away and I walk back to the house, she’s not the only one crying and wishing someone would rescue them from the bus.
A year ago, when we met with the -ists at Bella’s school to complete her first IEP, they asked us if we would like Bella to ride the bus. We were hesitant. We weren’t sure she would go for it, and I liked the idea of driving her to school every day and keeping regular contact with her teachers and therapists. But the class times would make it hard for me to make it to work, and having her dropped off every day would be more convenient for Rob instead of dragging Surrey across town every day. The -ists felt that riding the bus would be great for Bella, given that she had a hard time with transitions. Getting on the bus would help signal the switch between home and school. We decided to give it a try.
About once a month, I adamantly want to quit the bus. On the drive to work, I think about how I could coordinate my work schedule with Surrey and Bella’s preschool times so that I could drive them all to school next year and just be done with the bus. I fantasize about quitting my job and taking a part-time job so I can drive Bella to school every day. During those bad weeks, though, Rob reminds me that about 75-80% of the time, the bus works out just fine. He points out that it’s her very first year riding the bus, and we didn’t even think she would be able to do it at all. Her teachers tell me that most mornings, she’s absolutely happy and fine when she arrives at school, despite me watching her drive away in tears.
With autism, you find yourself constantly walking a tightrope between protection and and exposure. You want so badly to shield your child from the things that upset them, the things they can’t understand or process. On the other hand, you realize that if they are going to function independently in the real world someday, you have to expose them to the upsetting things so they can learn how to cope with them on their own. It’s not easy to resist the urge to protect them from the anxiety. It’s also not easy to know exactly how much you should nudge them before you’re expecting too much from them.
For now, Bella will keep riding the bus. We’ll keep trying to help her cope with the days that it’s harder to get on the bus. I’ll keep protecting her from the things she shouldn’t have to cope with, and Rob will keep pushing me to let her figure some things out for herself.
I’ll probably still keep plotting the demise of the bus in my head while I drive.
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