Afternoon sun was warming the porch. October in California can feel like mid summer, and so I decided to sit on the toasty steps of the porch and wait for Zach’s school bus. Being in special education, he had curbside drop-off. He’s always had door-to-door service from school to home the years he rode the bus. So I kicked off my shoes, turned my face to the sunshine, and grabbed a moment of Indian summer relaxation.
Wheeeesh-sshhhoooo! Funny…it sounded like the hiss of the school bus braking. But it was too far away. I cracked open one eyelid. Nope. No bus at the curb. But my instinct told me to open both eyes. As I did, my peripheral vision caught something big and yellow. A school bus was starting to pull away from the intersection where our cul-de-sac joined a busy street. And there in the street was a small figure. My eyes adjusted to the brightness. It couldn’t be. There IN the intersection, standing on asphalt while the bus pulled away, was Zach. My stomach clenched. I flew off the porch and sprinted, barefooted, the length of the cul-de-sac. The intersection was four houses down. I was screaming, “Stop! Wait! He can’t cross the street by himself!!!!!” It was a terrifying moment as the driver just kept accelerating and my young backpacked boy began moving toward me. I’ll never forget the relief I felt scooping him into the safety of my arms, nor the sizzling anger I harbored toward the irresponsible driver.
He was a little kid when that happened. Although we had been teaching safety skills across the board, and even though they worked on crossing streets during CBI at school, he couldn’t cross the street by himself. He still can’t. We’ve been working on this for well over a decade. How to cross streets safely on foot (and on his bike) just isn’t sinking in. And frankly, it scares me to my core.
Research suggests that kids can’t be completely trusted to safely cross a busy road on their own until age 14. Apparently, it just takes that long to develop the necessary motor skills and perceptual judgment for this task. Crossing a street requires a complex set of skills. You start with where to cross. Then how to look for traffic. The when of crossing safely is also a huge factor. Judging potential speed of oncoming cars as well as predicting their course – these are high level thinking skills. There’s guesswork involved, especially in a crosswalk; one never knows if drivers are aware of crosswalks, pedestrians, flashing lights, etc. Weather, lighting conditions, road conditions, and the number of pedestrians are all confounding factors.
When we first started working with Zach on this, his behavioral aide asked him to look for cars before crossing. It quickly occurred to me that looking for cars wasn’t going to help much; parked cars posed no immediate danger, but I felt in Zach’s mind he saw cars like she asked and assumed it was not okay to cross. But it was. So that’s confusing. Then it became about cars that were moving. Sometimes though, the moving car was either way in the distance or going slowly enough to allow a safe cross. So how do you teach that? If you tell the boy not to cross when there are moving cars, you could be there all day!
It’s not only crossing a street that becomes problematic for us. Parking lots? I’m afraid it’s the same thing. It’s almost worse actually. If we teach that nonmoving cars means it’s safe to proceed, then a parking lot full of still cars should be safe, right? Add to these conundrums running into the street when, for example, a ball or a piece of chalk rolls down the driveway. Or seeing a branch, a large leaf, or some litter that “needs attention.” How about a garbage bin whose wheels are not perfectly aligned to the curb? And a neighbor’s newspaper landing short of the sidewalk beckons him to fix it. This all provides impetus for bolting without looking. For us, teaching vehicle safety is reminiscent of Phil’s predicament in “Groundhog Day.” We are repeating the same drill on every sidewalk around every time we’re outdoors, and we’re not making progress.
We’ve employed many techniques through the years to teach this skill. And honestly, I cannot and will not assume he’s learned it, mastered it, or can employ it. He hasn’t. And to test it – well, that’s not going to happen. How can you when the risk is so great? I never thought I’d have a young adult who is completely dependent on me to cross a street wherever we go. But that is the reality. One more thing autism has stolen.
Zach learns best when there is consistency. Rules. Clear cut systems. He functions well with a “here’s how you do it” approach, if how you do it remains the same every time. There could be a slight variation, but generally, his mind wants to follow the same series of steps in order to accomplish a task. Crossing the street doesn’t allow for 100% consistency. Not even 50%. Streets are different everywhere you go. Some have lights, some don’t. Some crosswalks are painted yellow. Some white. Sometimes, crosswalks are absent. Some streets are narrow and crossing takes five seconds. Others are wide and take much more time. Intersections look different depending on the time of day. There are streets with medians to step onto – that’s a world of confusion right there! And of course you mix in the inconsistent tendencies of people behind their wheels and it’s all a recipe for bewilderment soup.
I continue to hold my teenager’s hand when we cross a street. It doesn’t matter if we’re in Midtown or my own neighborhood. I’ve got my fingers laced with his. I go through the rigmarole every time. Here’s the street! Let’s stop before we cross. What do we do? Look left. Look right. Look left again. Are there any cars coming toward us? Time and again, we encounter some anomaly. Just as we begin to cross, a car turns and heads toward us. How to handle that? Or we’re at a four-way stop and a car IS coming, but it slows and motions us to go before stopping. How can we teach him what that means? Did he even see the driver’s hand? And those pedestrian traffic lights like the open hand or the walking figure…talk about confusing. There’s the green hand, the flashing hand, the red hand. Some of those signals have timers which count down. How do I know if those mean anything to him? The “Walk” and “Don’t walk” signs can complicate things. With autism comes literal thinking. So if he’s in the middle of the street and the “Don’t walk” signal starts blinking, that means don’t walk; i.e. stop what you are doing and go no farther. And we know how that will end up, don’t we?
I often wonder what will happen when I’m much older and walking slower. Zach may still be alongside me, his fingers gripping mine. He will have the strength and stride of a man. What if I can’t hold him? What if he darts away? What if I trip and let go? It’s one of the 10,000 ways I freak myself out when thinking about the future.
So I will continue to pursue the Fountain of Youth in hopes of never aging, for one thing, and for another, I will continue to teach him about street safety. There’s no giving up. It’s not only him looking both ways though. It’s me. Yes, there is a lot of effort involved in this, and constantly having to perform the drill can take a toll. I’d love to be able to cross a street without the fuss. But there’s a flip side. I know with more certainty than the average parent of a teenager that my kid is safe. I don’t have to worry about him taking risks. Don’t have to wonder if he’ll make it home safely from school or a friend’s house. My mind isn’t preoccupied with images of him crossing a street on a bike and getting hit. I remain in control of the situation to a large degree. There are no guarantees of course, but I can make it safe. I am there to make sure his feet go where they are supposed to go and not go where they shouldn’t. (Although the boy is a mud-puddle magnet.) Sometimes when I look at it both ways, my heart doesn’t break quite so much.