Eric Mikoleit and Kris Webster recognize that for many students with autism, their bus driver is the first person outside of the home the student sees each morning. As a result, bus drivers can set the tone for students’ entire day, making it crucial for drivers to understand autism and how to communicate with these students.
Mikoleit and Webster are staff members at Lakeland STAR School/Academy, the local charter school catering to the needs of students with autism. Mikoleit, as the school’s director, and Webster, as one of the school’s speech and language pathologists, visited Lakeland Area Bus Services on Feb. 5 to lead an educational session with the drivers who take children to and from Lakeland Area Consortium (LAC) schools each and every day. 
“We want not only to educate about autism, but to make the students’ worlds more predictable, more safe, to make bus drivers’ worlds more safe,” Webster said. 
The two Lakeland STAR representatives discussed what Mikoleit called “Autism 101.”
According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 59 children are now diagnosed as autistic.
“It’s the fastest-growing developmental disability in the country,” Mikoleit said. “It’s there, it’s here, it’s all in the communities, across all races and age groups.”
Mikoleit estimates about 70-75% of the 37 enrolled students at Lakeland STAR have a primary diagnosis of autism. While most Lakeland STAR students take a separate bus, there are still a large number of students with autism who take the larger routes, making it important for every driver to have an understanding of the disorder. Webster and Mikoleit felt the techniques they presented in the session could be used to support students with other types of disabilities as well. 

Gaining knowledge
Webster, who has spent over 25 years working with children with autism, explained autistic children have a particularly difficult time processing verbal language. 
“In the brain, when a child is developing and it’s a neurodevelopmental disorder, that part of the brain does not develop,” she said, referring to the brain regions involved in understanding and producing language.
Consequently, autistic children often have a difficult time responding to complicated verbal instructions. 
“Language is so difficult for them — they’re not wired for it — that visual is key. They take in visual information, they process it much faster than they do language,” Webster said.
To help mitigate these difficulties in communication, Webster and Mikoleit created a five-part graphic key for drivers to either put at the front of their bus or directly in front of the child with autism. These five “universal rules,” as Webster called them, include showing the child to sit down, put a seat belt on, speak in a quiet voice, stay in the seat and get off the bus. 
She and Mikoleit hope implementing these signs will help autistic students learn the rules of the bus more efficiently.
“They want to follow your rules on your bus. They truly do,” Mikoleit said. “They yearn for rules and for structures.”
He emphasized routine is particularly important for autistic children, a mindset which can become especially problematic if there is a substitute bus driver.
Mikoleit gave an example of how a substitute driver could throw off a student’s entire day.
“He might intake it — there’s somebody different — sit down, go through the bus ride, come to school and have a screaming fit then at school because he finally processed, ‘I had a different bus driver. Nobody told me about it. I wasn’t prepared.’”
Mikoleit and Webster brainstormed with the drivers that perhaps in the future if it’s known there will be a sub ahead of time, the regular driver could hang up the substitute’s photograph somewhere in the bus leading up to the day. This proactive solution could help prepare students by tapping into their visual learning skills, ensuring that the change in routine goes as smoothly as possible for the student and the driver.
The other primary concern of drivers was not knowing which students on their buses had developmental disabilities. With the exception of the driver of the Lakeland STAR students, there is currently no way for drivers to identify the students on their busses may have special needs. The lack of knowledge is a concern for regular as well as substitute drivers should there be an emergency situation. 
Mikoleit suggested he could speak with district administrators of the LAC schools to see if it was possible to draw up a permission form for parents to sign which would allow drivers to be informed of a child’s special needs, whether it be autism or diabetes or another health issue. 
But, Mikoleit pointed out that even if he could get the green light from the administrators, “it’s parent’s choice.”
Webster felt parents would be open to the idea. 
“I know if my daughter had had a special need and I was putting her on public transportation, I would want her to be as safe as possible and if she needed something, I would want the bus driver to feel confident and supportive that they could deliver,” she said. 
Webster and Mikoleit felt the meeting last week was another solid stepping stone in spreading awareness about autism throughout the community.
“I think Lakeland STAR is just instrumental in bringing autism to the forefront up here and there are so many supportive people in this community,” said Webster, adding in her 25 years working with autism in other communities, she has never had a large educational meeting with bus drivers like the one at Lakeland Area Bus Services.
Mikoleit was encouraged by the positive feedback of the meeting and is already working on coordinating similar training sessions with other local organizations in the future.
Delaney FitzPatrick may be reached via email at delaney@lakelandtimes.com.