As my son grows older (he’ll be 12 in March) we are grappling more and more with the challenge of developing his independence.
For most 11 year olds, catching the bus home from school, walking around the corner to a friend’s house and having sleepovers are no big deal. They are age appropriate activities and what most kids that age are able, and willing, to do.
However for kids with special needs, engaging in age appropriate activities is not always possible.
There are no checklists you can consult. No peers to check off against.
You have to trust your instincts, and your child’s, to work together to reach milestones of independence in their own time. And hope you get it right!
Gilbert’s autism and his vision impairment mean that he does not do many of the things that his peers do. He does not catch the bus. He doesn’t walk the streets alone and he has never slept over at a friend’s house.
This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want to do those things or that we don’t want him to. It just means that we have not yet developed the skills we all need for him to do those things successfully and without undue anxiety.
However we can’t wrap him up in cotton wool forever so we are actively trying to break one of those barriers down – catching the bus home from school.
As he is halfway through year 5, we have just under a year and a half before he moves to high school. Our plan is to have him in a position where he can independently get himself to and from school by the time he begins year 7. It’s important for us to get him used to this change well before high school so he has one less change/stress to worry about when the time comes.
We already know how hard that transition will be – no need to throw any further stress or challenges into the mix…
To get things moving, we set this as a short-term goal in his NDIS plan for the year, lining up with our overall long term goal to develop his independence. With the help of the NDIA we included funding for Guide Dogs Australia to accompany Gilbert and basically train him to catch the bus independently. And we are finally getting to a position where he might just achieve that goal.
Last week we had our first session where two representatives from Guide Dogs Australia accompanied him on a public bus. The decision was made not to immediately put him on the school bus as it is crowded and noisy. We wanted to introduce him to bus travel in a less challenging setting.
Gilbert was shown how to look for landmarks so he would be in a position to alert the driver when it was time to get off at his stop. He was also guided as to how to get on/off the bus safely, shown the basic of public transport etiquette (as much for his autism as for his vision) and was helped to safely cross the two quiet streets that separate the bus stop from our house.
It was a successful trial. Despite the windows being foggy from rain, making it harder to see, Gilbert was able to make out the local Aldi which is located just before his bus stop. He managed to safely cross the streets home and seemed to enjoy the novelty of coming home on public transport (he has been on buses before but never without us.)
So this week we are taking it up notch – he will be coming home on the school bus, again with his mentors from Guide Dogs Australia. I’ll be interested to see how he deals with the noise, the movement and the crowd of students that are sure to be on board.
My biggest fear is that something will happen to him on the bus which will upset him and see him lash out. I’m hoping having his mentors there will help defuse any such situation and will provide him with guidance on how to deal with such situations, should they arise in future.
I also hope that the bus driver is understanding and can keep a look out for him. I’ve advised Gilbert (and his Guide Dog Australia mentors) to try to grab a seat at the front, near the driver, to reduce the chances of upset and to make it easier for him to get on and off the bus safely.
Fingers crossed it’s another successful trip for him – and for us.
Letting go is never easy but I know we need to start loosening the reins, ever so slightly, so he has the same chances as his peers to develop independence.
Wish us all luck!