Farewell to a short bus

He’s been riding them for years. Some were terrible, others were okay. One was great.

One night while giving Colin a bath, I noticed small red marks all over his torso. He couldn’t tell me their origin, but after some cajoling I came to understand that his bus matron was pinching him when he was “too loud.”

This was a low point, but there were others. One short bus was just a beat-up yellow minivan blasting reggae music. Other buses had no a/c despite New York City’s notoriously hot and soggy summers. One had no heat: foggy clouds emanated from the driver’s mouth as he greeted Colin one January morning.

Not happy after a long ride on a hot day with no a/c

Not happy after a long ride on a hot day with no a/c

One belched blue smoke and broke down regularly. It died its final death on a highway overpass during rush hour. The matron had to transfer the kids through traffic to a replacement bus when it arrived an hour later. Another short bus was perpetually late and the bus company’s only phone number was a single cell phone. Always busy.

These stories aren’t unique to Colin’s buses. One friend waited two hours for his autistic son to arrive home. The driver wasn’t responding to calls from the bus company, and no one knew where they were or why they were late. No explanation was offered.

Another parent’s non-verbal autistic child was dropped off at the wrong stop. Fortunately, a good samaritan saw the young boy wandering around, realized something was amiss, and went to work figuring out where the boy belonged. Had it not been for the kind stranger, all could have ended badly.

People make fun of short buses. In fact, the term “short bus” is often used as an ableist slur, one so common even evangelical Mike Huckabee thought it was an appropriate way to insult people. (Which begs the question, is there an appropriate way to insult people?)

But these short buses aren’t a joke, and they’re far more than a utility; for special needs parents, they’re a lifeline. And all we ask is that our kids make it from home to school and back without incident. We entrust our children to strangers who earn little more than minimum wage, and who have little if any training in special needs. And, in fairness, most of them do their jobs competently, if with little enthusiasm.


Median salary for a New York City school bus driver, via salary.com

Last week, however, we said goodbye to a very good bus. A great bus, in fact. It was clean and dent-free. It was quiet, with tinted windows to reduce heat and glare. Both the air conditioning and heat were effective, and it hummed like a sewing machine. Oh, and it was a hybrid.

None of that made the bus great, however. Alex and Mariana, the driver and matron, made the bus great.


Colin getting ready for his last ride to school with Mariana and Alex

Colin getting ready for his last ride to school with Mariana and Alex

Each morning Colin is greeted with big smiles. “Good morning, Colin!” they cheer. Mariana asks how his day is going so far. “Great!” he says as he bounds up the bus steps, backpack flopping behind him.

Colin taps the dashboard clock when he gets on, time being something of an obsession for him. Some drivers have scowled, one used to swat his hand away, as if the clock were some kind of mission-critical flight instrumentation. Not Alex: he laughs, confirms the time with Colin, and gives him a fist bump or high five. And why not? You could set your watch by Alex’s arrival times. And when the bus is running behind, they send texts so we can prepare Colin to deal with his “schedule anxiety.”

Some matrons report every infraction—he was too loud; he banged on the bus window; he yelled when we got stuck in traffic—but not Mariana. On the occasions when I’ve asked how Colin is behaving, she smiles and says, “He’s fine.” Translation: “Sure, he sometimes does things he shouldn’t, but we’ve got this.” (Thank you for not making everything a problem we have to solve.)

Colin rides the bus for up to three hours every school day, and for the past several months, we’ve had the good fortune of knowing he’s riding with Alex and Mariana, two people who not only do their job ably, but who genuinely care about the children in their charge. Two people who won’t earn any extra money for being good and kind, but who do so anyway.

Sadly, today was Colin’s last day on the best short bus he’s ever had. We’re grateful for the peace of mind you’ve given us, Alex and Mariana, and for the care and affection you’ve shown our son. Maybe, if the stars align, you’ll be picking Colin up again in the Fall. Either way, you’ll always hold a special place in our hearts.

TED Talk: "To understand autism, don't look away"

Today's TED Talk has an important, moving message. As this autism mom says, "There is no need to be an expert nor do anything heroic to include someone. We just need to be there...we simply need to be close. And if we are afraid of something or we don't understand something, we need to ask." It's seven minutes, and well worth it. Note: the talk is in Spanish with English subtitles.

On love, empathy, and connectedness

Close up on the palm of a man's hand holding a tiny seedling.“Rock it,” Colin says. “Rock the baby to sleep.” This time the “baby” is a tiny seedling he’s placed in the palm of my hand. Now he cradles my hand in his, swaying it back and forth and humming Rock-a-bye Baby.

On love

Colin loves babies. He talks to them as though they can understand what he’s saying. “How old are you, baby?” “Did you cry when you were born, baby?” He doesn’t seem concerned that they don’t answer. For their part, babies seem intrigued by this large-but-not-full-sized human with giant eyes and so many questions.

Colin has his own small collection of babies. At the moment, it includes four stuffed dogs and a doll with blue hair that he found in the playground. The first of his babies was a flop-eared stuffed dog he named “Pokelyn.” The others he named Chipwich, Doglass, and Lucy. (I don’t think the doll has a name.) He takes one of his babies with him to school every day.

A small stuffed dog sticks its head out of a backpack

On empathy

If he can’t find one of his babies, Colin becomes frantic. He blames himself; he says he’s a “bad parent” for being careless. He worries that the missing baby is “not in this world anymore.” He imagines they must be scared and lonely. He hugs and kisses them when they’re found.

A small boy is hugged by his male therapist

On connectedness

Colin has a very special friendship with Aaron, one of his therapists. Unfortunately, however, Aaron is moving away. Colin wrote Aaron a farewell note. It read:

Der Aron I love you. Il miss you for along time. Love Colin

If you’re unfamiliar with autism, I’d ask you to keep these anecdotes about my son in mind the next time you hear someone—whether they’re a celebrity, well-regarded researcher, or just a friend or family member—say that autistic people lack empathy, that they’re not connected to others, that they’re incapable of true love.

Remember, also, that people experience and display emotions in different ways, and that doesn’t mean their emotions are any less authentic or meaningful than your own. Look for the connections. You’ll find them.