Your Teen with Autism: When things go wrong with Pubic Transit

We know our teens need to become more independent.  But it’s so hard to not think about everything that can go wrong.  And it may hold us back from pushing our kids down the road of independence.  But we must push ourselves.

I shared how we prepared our son for riding public transit in a recent post.  But what if something goes wrong?

As part of our preparation programs, we know that our son struggled with the ability to describe where he is.  We had a program where our son and his ABA therapist would go to a public place like a mall or shopping center.  With phone in hand, he would need to go somewhere in the shopping center and then call his ABA therapist and then work to describe where he was so the therapist could find him based on the description.  This took a LOT of work and when things seemed like they were finally going well, we’d intentionally change locations and it would often feel like we were starting over.

Back to the bus.  One morning, shortly after a holiday break, I was almost at work when I got the dreaded text:

I am so sorry I accidentally went on a wrong bus I should have payed attention to what the number says.

I had been driving to work so I didn’t see the text until I arrived, 10 MINUTES after it had been sent.

I responded,

Are you lost?

He responded,


I checked my phone to see if the family tracker was working.  He is constantly turning OFF the tracking.  Sure enough, no sign of him.  I would be totally dependent on my son being able to describe where he was in downtown Seattle, and likely in a location where he had never been before.

I called.  He answered.  He was frustrated.  He was scared.  I knew I had to be calm because when my son senses that I’m frazzled, he becomes more frazzled.

I said,

It’s OK.  You took the wrong bus.  It’s OK.  People make that mistake all the time.  I will come and pick you up and take you to school.  Can you tell me what street you are standing on?

This was it.  Could he answer this question?  Did the preparation we did actually prepare him for a moment like this?

Terry Avenue.

He answered my question!  At a minimum, I can drive all the way up and down Terry Avenue until I find him.  But I’m going to see if we can do even better.  I said,

Walk to the nearest corner.  Can you tell the me the name of the other street on the corner?

He responded,

Olive Way.

I was elated!!!

OK.  I know where to find you.  I am driving towards you now.  I think it may take me about 10 minutes to get there so just stay where you are and I will find you.

Now, as I was driving, I kept him on the phone and just reinforced all the good things he had done.  I recognized he was on the wrong bus.  He got off the bus.  He contacted me for help.  And he was keeping it together.

As I approached Terry Avenue and Olive Way, I saw him.  I’ve never been so happy to see him.  He hopped in the car.  And I once again reinforced with him how me made a mistake and he figured out how to fix it.  I was so proud of him and I said that being able to solve problems is what will allow him to live on his own someday.  (This is something he really wants.)

After I dropped him off at school, I felt a sense of relief.  And it wasn’t just relief that this incident was over.  It was relief knowing he could handle something going wrong on the bus.  EVERY TIME I dropped him off at the bus stop, I had this low level worry that I was just carrying around, EVERY DAY.

This worry comes from the verbal challenges.  My son cannot talk to me in a way that allows me to really know that he understands something.  He has proven to me so many times that he is comprehending things like this.  But because I cannot have a conversation to confirm his understanding, I have to blindly trust.  Its’ a huge leap of faith but time and time again, he is showing me with his actions that he understands.

We prepared for what could go wrong.  And when things went wrong, he was ready.  It can be done.  It may take a LONG time but it is time well spent.


Is Your Teen with Autism Ready for Public Transit?

Most 16 year olds are either driving a car or taking public transportation.  But for a teen with Autism, that’s not usually the case.  Our teenager clearly wanted the independence of not having mom or dad dropping him off at school.  Over the course of 2 years, we were able to get him riding public transportation on his own.


Breaking it down.

First, we had to recognize that we needed to find something equivalent to driving a car or taking the bus on his own while we worked through our longer term plan.  I could easily drop him off at school on my way to work, but he didn’t want that.  In the Seattle area, we had the option of using the Access Bus Service.  This was a hassle for me in terms of scheduling and coordinating rides but it gave my son his first step toward independent transportation.

During the period of time where he was riding Access to school, we focused his ABA program on several things focused on riding the bus:

  1. Personal Safety – not talking to strangers, where to sit on the bus (near the front), keeping a low profile by wearing headphones and not staring at others, avoiding “self talk” (talking out loud to yourself in public) and how to ask a bus driver for help.
  2. Bus and Navigation Skills – Using a trip planner to plan out a route from one place to another, understanding how to identify which bus to ride, navigating from one bus stop to another if your route has a transfer, and if you are lost, how to call for help and describe where you are.

When our son mastered his Personal Safety and Bus/Navigation programs, we knew he was ready.  In the Seattle area, they have a wonderful program called Transit Instruction.  We signed up our son and he was paired with an instructor who rode transit with him every day, to and from school, until he had mastered the route and demonstrated appropriate behavior on the bus.

The first time our son rode the bus solo, he met his bus instructor but then he got on the bus on his own with a plan to meet the instructor on the other end of the route.  Unknown to our son, there was a secret rider who was working with the instructor so our son could be observed when he thought he was riding alone.  All went smoothly and our son was ready to truly ride solo.

It was difficult for me the first few times I left my son at the bus stop.  Our son appears to be VERY proud of his ability to independently get to and from school.  And this simply contributes to his confidence across all other areas of his life.

If you are a parent wondering if your older child on the spectrum is ready for this, I encourage you to push yourself.  I’ll share in a future post “what happens if something goes wrong”.  We’ve lived through our son getting on the wrong bus and getting lost in downtown Seattle.  He survived.  We survived.  And our confidence in his ability is even greater now as a result.