The School Bus

We received a call yesterday from Emma’s school saying the bus driver had yelled at Emma in front of the other children when she was getting off the bus. The driver claimed Emma had spit in her face. Richard and I were incredulous as neither of us have ever seen Emma spit nor did I think Emma was physically capable of projecting a pool of saliva from her mouth at a target, human or otherwise.
When we asked Emma what happened on the bus, she replied, “Emma so sad. You make Emma cry. Emma want to get off the bus.”
“Why did you want to get off the bus, Em?”
“Lady. You have to ask the lady. Lady, can I get off the bus?” Emma said while wrapping a strand of hair around and around her finger.
“What did the lady say?”
“NO! Emma sad.”
“But Em, what happened?”
“Emma go to gymnastics?” She looked at me and nodded her head.
“Yes, Sweetie. You’re going to gymnastics this afternoon,” I said.
By the time the bus arrived, Richard and I were no clearer on the actual events than before. As with many autistic children, their (in)ability to speak is much more than a language delay. The language they have is often garbled, confused and the thinking difficult, if impossible to follow. Emma’s reference to gymnastics in answer to my request for clarification as to the events on the bus suggested she feared she wouldn’t be able to go to gymnastics as a result. She had done something wrong, someone was angry, her beloved gymnastics would be taken away. Even after I reassured her she would be attending gymnastics, she continued to ask several more times.
Last night Emma woke me at 1:47AM screaming, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy come!”
When I went into her room I told her if she continued to scream we would not let her go to gymnastics, something she’s been looking forward to for several days. It does make sense how she might conclude gymnastics was up for grabs, given the upset on the bus.
When the bus arrived we asked what happened.
The driver leaned forward and said, “She spit in my face. I told her that wasn’t okay.”
“She spit in your face?” I repeated.
“Yeah. In my face. She sits there spitting on the floor and then blames another kid, but it’s not him that’s doing it, it’s her. She’s the one who’s spitting,” the driver said.
“It’s hard for us to believe this, as we’ve never seen her spit at anyone,” Richard replied.
“Yeah, well I think she picked it up from the other kid, cause he use to spit, but now she does more than him and blames him.”
“Okay. Then what happened?”
“I told her – it’s not okay. You can’t do that,” the driver said. “She went like this,” the driver took her hand put it to her mouth and flicked out with her fingers. “She spit at me and I told her you can’t do that.”
“Okay, do you mind if I get on the bus to talk to her?” I asked.
The bus driver nodded her head.
“Em, you can’t spit. Do you know what that means?” I asked.
Emma stared at me and said, “You have to ask Mommy.”
“No Em. You just can’t spit. You have to keep your fingers out of your mouth. You have to keep your gum in your mouth. Okay?”
“Okay,” Emma answered.
“She doesn’t listen,” the bus matron said.
“It’s not that she doesn’t listen, it’s that she doesn’t understand what’s being said to her,” I began.
“Yeah, but she doesn’t listen,” the matron said, shaking her head and staring at Emma who was now seated directly behind the driver with her seat belt buckled.
“She doesn’t understand what’s being said to her, it’s different than not listening,” I said.
“No I know. I understand these kid’s situation. I’ve been driving kids like this for a long time,” the driver said. The matron stood by shaking her head. As all of this was going on one of the children kept getting up from her seat and standing in the aisle.
“Logan! Sit back down!” the driver said, loudly.
“Logan! Sit down!” Emma parroted.
“She doesn’t understand why you’re angry with her. She doesn’t understand what it means to spit at someone,” I said. “Yelling at her won’t make her understand any better.”
“Oh no. I don’t yell. I never yelled at her,” the driver said. “I just told her like this,” she then spoke in a kind voice, “You can’t do that, it’s not okay.”
Richard and I looked at one another. “Okay, well please tell us if anything like this happens again.”
“She’ll have a new driver after the holiday,” the driver informed us. “But I know her, she’s a friend of mine, I’ll tell her what’s going on.”
By the time the bus left with Emma inside it, Richard and I stood together and watched it go. I felt a familiar constriction in my chest. How can we know what really happened? Our daughter is incapable of telling us her version of what occurred, the school wasn’t on the bus until after the “incident” happened, though they did witness the driver shouting at Emma. The accounts from the driver and the bus matron, who appear to have little if any knowledge of autism and certainly no training in autism, are all we have.

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