Not seeing the wood for the trees

Do you ever have those moments when the blindingly obvious suddenly hits you between the eyes? One of those, “Duh – why didn’t I think of this before?” moments? In my case, such moments are usually followed by guilt and self-criticism for not having thought about it before. You can see what’s coming, can’t you! Yes, that happened to me late last week, as I was going to school with my two youngest wombats.

I happened to drive past a student from Dancing Wombat’s school. He was waiting for a tram near the end of our street. Interesting, I thought. He’s not taking  the school bus. I briefly wondered why, then dismissed it. Two days later, when picking up Dancing Wombat from school for her swimming lesson, I noticed students leaving early. Knowing the school’s routines, I realised that they were going home via public transport.

The Christmas lights went on in my head – why doesn’t Dancing Wombat learn to get to school this way too? Next year is her last year of school (cue scary music, followed by weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth). She recently turned 17. What a fabulous way to help her develop some independent living skills.

Right. I had my next DW project. Now to set it up.

Preparation – scoping the project

Could Hubby Wombat be around next week in the mornings to help with the younger wombats while I trammed to school with DW? (Although she has travelled this route before, the stop is different, and there’s a 15-20 minute walk at the end.) No? Ho hum. Ok. Her brothers would have to pull their weight then, to help her. I wasn’t prepared to wait for next year to start. She still has a week and a half left of school this year. Having come to the idea late, I was keen to get started.

Over dinner that night, I checked out the tram stops and the distance between her stop and her school. Surely it was do-able? It would give her some more exercise too – bonus! I showed DW.

Me: Look! Here’s your  tram stop, and here’s school. It’s really close!
DW: Route 75? Yay!
Me: Yes – Route 75. You’ve been on that one before. That’s how you got to Sparrow Street.
DW: (Getting excited, and giving me a hug) Yay!
Me: (Pointing out the route) See, where you get on? It’s the same place. How about where you get off?
DW: There!
Me: Where’s “there”?
DW: (Giggling) There!
Me: Hmph! Where’s “there”?
DW: Stop 61.
Me: Where’s Stop 61?

She finally came through with the goods, telling me the name of the school beside her stop. What a rigmarole!

Training begins

The next day, Saturday, training began. It was warm. It was late afternoon. Dancing Wombat had just returned from bowling with a social group run by our local council. So she was tired. The kinder, gentler me would have let the plan drop and taken her home for some down time. But the kinder me was in hiding. After detouring past the public facilities, I coaxed her to the tram stop with the promise of afternoon tea later – if the shops were still open.

The tram was almost empty, the announcements were clear, and Dancing Wombat could read the stops on the overhead displays. She insisted, though, on sitting backwards, because there was a seat she fancied. This is something to work on. Facing forwards is preferable, so she can look ahead to where she needs to get off. She can’t rely on being able to read the displays or hear the announcements. She also needs to recognise different points along the route – streets, bridges, dips and hills, identifiable buildings.

Dancing Wombat was standing, ready in plenty of time to push the button before we reached the stop. I could see her grinning broadly as we alighted. There were pedestrian lights at the stop (I’d scoped this too). She identified which way we needed to cross. Then I asked her for directions.

Me: Remember the name of the street you need?
DW: I don’t know.
Me: (Sigh) I don’t believe you. Come on – what was it?
DW: (Giggles, then more giggles) I can’t say – I’m laughing too much.
Me: Well?
DW: Crom – ha, ha, ha, – well Street.
Me: Great! Ok, which way?
DW: (Points)
Me: Which way?
DW: That way.
Me: Hmph! Which way?
DW: Right.
Me: Right! I mean, ok! Let’s go!

There’s always a spanner in the works

Two minutes later, we were at the corner and the conversation was repeated, with slight variations, to allow for turning left, instead of right. Part-way along the street, she stopped to pick up a pamphlet, which then occupied her mind as she looked for a recycling bin. There were none on our side of this residential street, and she didn’t want to cross the street to where there were a couple of bins outside a block of flats.

Blasted litter bugs. This little bit of rubbish occupied a big bit of her mind. She didn’t want to leave it on the ground, didn’t want to carry it but wouldn’t let me take it. She was on the point of a meltdown. I inwardly cursed autism for compelling her to make a mountain out of a molehill.

Dancing Wombat  was tired, it was hot and I was pushing her. She decided to put the rubbish down on someone’s fence, her face crumpling. “It’s no good.” She stamped her foot. “I’m leaving it here.”

Smiley face! “Fine. Good choice. Let’s go – we’re nearly there! I can see the main road.”

Three more streets later, we were closer to the school and next to a café. Which was shut.

“But you said we could have afternoon tea!”
“If the café was open. It’s shut. We were too slow.” (It might have been shut anyway.)
“But you said…!”
“I know – but we can’t get in. What would you do? Break the door down?”
(Giggles.) “Yes!”
You get the idea. But it broke the tension from before.

Almost there

I knew that she knew the way to school from here, but I wanted to take the last couple of steps, which involved crossing at the pedestrian lights and making the correct turns to get her on the road leading to her school. Again, I made her articulate the direction she was taking – right or left – instead of just pointing or saying “there”. Some things, she picks up straight away. With others – usually the more important, survival skills stuff – she needs a lot of repetition and practice. This is not easily achieved.

Soon enough, we were trudging back to the tram stop. The hill was steep, although luckily short. I’m not sure how she’ll manage this on a hot Melbourne afternoon. That’s a bridge to cross later. Then, “Where’s the rubbish?”

Again? It’s hard for her to let things go. It’s a completion thing. A control thing. Let’s face it – it can be one of autism’s strengths and weaknesses. Luckily, the pamphlet was near where she had left it. This time, she was happy to cross the street – “At the drive, Mum – it’s safer!”.

The home trip was uneventful. I watched nervously, ready to jump up and pull the cord, but Dancing Wombat was ready and waiting as our stop approached. Awesome. And rest assured, she had a pretty good afternoon tea when we arrived home!

All systems were go for Monday morning and the school run.

The school run

We left for the tram at the same time that Dancing Wombat would have left for the bus. The tram was a few minutes late, which gave her time to dig out her purse from her bag. Note to self – she needs a little wallet for her MYKI which she can put in her pocket. Another note to self – she refuses to put anything in pockets. That’s one of the many projects in my mental queue. Necessity hasn’t pushed it to the front, but necessity is starting to nudge it forwards.

The tram approached. She was looking the other way, and not at the edge of the path. I kicked into sergeant-major on parade.

“Quick! Look up! Bag on! Go to the edge of the path! Look towards the tram, or the driver won’t think you want to get on! Hurry!”

Phew. All was well. We were on the tram. She “touched on” with her pass and found a seat. Facing backwards. Awkwardly replaced her wallet in her school bag, which she refused to keep on her lap. Another thing to work on!

From time to time, I checked that she knew where she was, either from listening to the announcements (which weren’t as clear as they had been on Saturday), from reading the display or looking out the window. All went well, and she was nudging me to get ready the stop before hers.

Off and walking

Once off the tram, I encouraged her to take the lead. I worked out a better way to cross one of the roads, which entailed crossing at a different place. This then avoided needing to cross another road altogether. Best of all, despite needing to stop innumerable times to adjust her clothing, she was in time for a milkshake at the café!

Dancing Wombat was clearly pleased with herself when she arrived at school. We’ll need to do this a few more times, with me gradually withdrawing my presence until I’m confident that she’s confident. And, more to the point, vigilant. Because she can be slow and particular about how she does things, she could easily miss her stop while adjusting a strap, or getting up too slowly, or not hearing or seeing her stop approach.

The biggest bonus was she was at her step target by the time she arrived home. So she had the evening pretty much to herself, her magazines, Lego and ipad! There was no need for a late evening walk.

So, in conclusion…

So many things are trade-offs. Dancing Wombat could happily take the school bus to and from school next year. It’s close, and thus convenient and easy. She won’t ever miss her stop. There’s no stranger danger. She travels with friends. It’s (usually) punctual. There are people to support her. Why do away with all this?

As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader, I’m passionate about helping my daughter develop her independent living skills. Being a confident and competent public transport user is a key component of this.

We’re blessed with good access to public transport. It’s close and convenient. The route is busy, with lots of school kids on the tram. Hopefully, this makes it safer.

Punctuality? She needs to learn strategies for when things don’t go as planned.

It’s REALLY HARD for us, to let go enough to enable this learning to happen. My heart is in my mouth every time I see her off, by herself, on a tram. Maybe it’s hard for her too. It’s an adventure, but still scary. She doesn’t say this. Perhaps she can’t. Or perhaps, I’m just being over-protective and she can’t wait to get away from me…!

I feel compelled to try and teach her. The more she’s able to do, the more she’ll be capable of doing.

So to all of you out there, challenged with similar issues, if you think it’s worth trying, give it a go. Put the structures and supports in place to help you. Have your back-up systems ready to go. Have the rewards handy. And good luck!

Until next time, Happy Wombatting!