Safer transport for autistic ākonga

Issue: Volume 101, Number 11

Posted: 31 August 2022
Reference #: 1HAVrn

Autism New Zealand and Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga | The Ministry of Education have partnered to better equip Specialised School Transport Assistance drivers to safely transport autistic ākonga.


A newly developed four-hour training programme for Specialised School Transport Assistance (SESTA) drivers focuses on providing relevant information about autism and the common challenges faced by autistic tamariki and rangatahi.

A total of 62 drivers have completed the first-ever course specifically designed for SESTA service providers.

Sukhminder Singh Jaura, managing director of Taxis United, says he and his drivers appreciated the course.

“I have feedback from our drivers that the training is beneficial for them. It helped us become more aware of the behaviours and needs of the students we transport, and I highly recommend this course to all SESTA service providers,” he says.

“Our main takeaway from the course is that autistic people can enjoy a good quality of life with proper support from their family, friends and everybody else around them.”

Having the right mindset

Jenny Woodfield, national educator for Autism New Zealand, has designed and led the facilitation of this specialised training programme.

With 16 years’ experience teaching children verified through the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS), she has supported a number of autistic children with transport challenges.

“Travelling to school and travelling back home from school are two big transitions for an autistic person – and transitions can be hard for a lot of autistic people,” explains Jenny.

SESTA drivers are often in the position of driving three or four children who can find transitions highly stressful. This requires the drivers to simultaneously deal with behavioural responses to stress while driving the children safely to their destination – which is not an easy task, especially if there is a lack of understanding of where this kind of behaviour is coming from.

“If you’re not in the right mindset and you fail to recognise this, some of the behaviours these autistic children exhibit may appear naughty. One of the things that we want everyone to understand through this training is that they’re not being naughty – they’re just highly anxious and having difficulty communicating about it,” says Jenny.

While many autistic people may have difficulty with communicating in ways that others understand, it is important to know that every autistic person is unique.

“When engaging with autistic people, you should get to know the person. Know their likes and dislikes, how to talk to them and how they react. Know what is vitally important for them and be conscious of that – if the child values routine, make sure that you stick to that same routine,” she says.

Specialised School Transport Assistance drivers at the training programme.

Specialised School Transport Assistance drivers at the training programme.

Preparation is key

While the overall health and safety of children in a school transport environment relies heavily on the drivers, teachers, parents and whānau play an integral role in ensuring the safe transportation of autistic ākonga.

“The preparation for those trips is important. Preparation includes explaining and showing the child a visual of what’s coming next. You can show them a photo of the driver, the vehicle, and the place where they’re going,” explains Jenny.

“It is important that the school and/or parents are made aware of any driver changes, route alteration, additional passengers in the vehicle, so they can properly explain this to the child before the trip.”

It takes a collective effort between the child’s family, transport provider and school to fully understand and plan for the child’s unique needs and ensure they feel safe.

Setting up a good future

To ensure the sustainability of good quality transport service for tamariki and rangitahi needing specialised assistance, the Ministry of Education is also working closely with key agencies like Waka Kotahi | New Zealand Transport Authority, Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) and some regional councils with Total Mobility programmes to continue improving upon relevant transportation safety and design policies.

“Fixing the quality of how we deliver the SESTA programme to rangatahi who rely on the service is just part of the picture,” says Bruce Chase, health and safety principal advisor for the Ministry of Education.

“It is crucial that, alongside these operational improvements we’re implementing for the benefit of the ākonga we serve, we contribute our extensive experience to highlight opportunities to improve upon existing laws and policies that help uphold their health and safety.”

Bruce says the aim is to ensure there are more drivers across providers with increased knowledge and understanding of diversity. Even after each of these tamariki graduate or leave the school system, they will receive a similar level of service that meets their particular transport needs as young adults and beyond, carrying them safely from one place to another as they strive to realise their full potential.

Read more about inclusive practice(external link) for all ākonga on the Education Gazette website.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:16 am, 31 August 2022

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