I can hear the bus before I see it. That can't be good, I think. Indeed, even conceptualizing it this way gives me pause... obviously, I do not hear the bus
... I hear the unmistakable chorus of noises emanating from the 45 kids on
We are preparing to depart from the amusement park where we have spent a good part of the day, from 10:00am till now, around 2:45. The bus ride is our riskiest activity at autism camp. It's the only time we have all the campers together and only a dozen or so people in a supervisory capacity---my most trusted, most resourceful students and assistants and me.
There is an art to getting these kids on the bus, surviving the ride and getting them off with as little anxiety and as much personal safety and dignity as possible. Who sits where is important as is who sits next to whom. Some kids need facilitation so that they and others around them are safe. Other kids have more latitude. This past summer's group had inordinately high numbers of screamers, headbangers, spitters, biters, pinchers, thrashers, grabbers and " scrawbers" ("scrawb" : the Newfoundland verb that is a perverse hybrid of scratch and claw is quite appropro here...). Once these behaviours are triggered, the cascade effect can be quite remarkable to behold.
Here is what preceded my arrival on the bus: Aurora Borealis Celestial Darling, one of this summer's campers, is a 12 year old girl who exhibits all of the above described behaviours. I have no idea what her parents were thinking ( or smoking?) when they named her, but on this particular day there were few heavenly attributions that I or others could make about her. For some unknown reason, Aurora got on the bus ahead of the others, then lay in wait to launch a physical assault, then a thrashing performance and then a screaming demonstration of operatic proportions. Her screaming triggered the other screamers. By the time I got on the bus, I could count 1o silent, scared kids and everyone else was screaming or wailing.
I scan and find all the eyes I need and in that uncanny way that attuned people work together, we got busy on de-escalation without anyone having to say too much. Aurora is moved to the second seat from the front behind one of our other award-winning grabbers; one of the assistants hugs her tightly to help her calm down. Another assistant sits with the gal who was scrawbed and begins to comfort her; another one engages our headbanger and gets him interested in something else; another engages five very scared little boys in an ingenious game of hangman... and I convince a screamer that her singing voice is lovely and a boy on the verge of losing it that he can keep it together and help me out here.
Before the bus leaves the parking lot, the only one making noise is Aurora--and she continues to wail, spit, moan and trash; her assistant provides her with hug pressure and room to move, a tough balance and a difficult one for one person only, but the best thing the rest of us can do to help is to keep the other 44 calm and this bus ride as regular as possible. As we approach the campus, another round of eye contact and soft words helps us organize getting Aurora off the bus first.
We get her off the bus; it takes three adults. Not as dignified as we'd like, but safe for her and the others. As soon as her feet are on the ground she relaxes, smiles at her father and skips off in his direction with a sweet little wave of her hand. The other kids file off, not too much the worse for wear, and head home with their parents.
We collapse, laughing and teary -eyed, sweating, embarrassed at our relief.
Thank you so much, I say to them.
It's a good thing they're all afraid of you, one of my students says.
They're not, I say. They just know I'm not afraid of them.
I hug them all. I check in with them all one to one before I let them leave.
My son and I go for a booster juice. My neck hurts and I am a little shaky. He and I talk about the bus ride. I call my spouse and give the low down on what's on the go. My heart rate slows to where it usually thumps. "Be the duck" has been my mantra for many years.... smooth on the surface, paddling like crazy underneath. Be the duck.