Trains and Tracks and Autism

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Many higher-level persons with autism are fascinated by trains. Trains are predictable: They run on a schedule, are limited to staying on a track that only goes certain places, and have very structured seating plans that no doubt came to be after much consultation between engineers, designers, and draftspersons. To some extent, buses share these characteristics, but not boats or planes, as the latter can go just about anywhere and are not constrained by the right angles and gentle curves of roads and tracks.

The New York Times reports how this (for want of a better word) fascination with transit systems is helping to encourage better socialization skills in persons with autism, through activities arranged through the New York Transit Museum:

“Like many children with autism spectrum disorders, Ravi is fascinated by trains and buses, entranced by their motion and predictability. And for years, these children crowded the exhibitions of the modest New York Transit Museum, chattering about schedules and engine components and old subway maps.

“‘This is really their element,’ said Ravi’s mother, Juliana Boehm, who brings Ravi and Oliver, his 8-year-old brother, who is also on the autism spectrum, to the museum almost weekly. ‘If I suggested another activity,’ she added, ‘it may have provoked anxiety.’

“Now, the museum, and others like it, are moving beyond accommodating the enthusiasm for trains and buses among children with autism and trying to use it to teach them how to connect with other people and the world.

“Marcia Ely, the New York Transit Museum’s assistant director, helped create the outreach after sensing the overwhelming demand: Schools for children with autism flooded her with requests for field trips; she was regularly stopped on the street by parents of autistic kids who wanted to talk when she was carrying her transit museum umbrella; and she saw the same children returning to the museum every weekend.

“The museum created a ‘Subway Sleuths’ after-school program for 9- and 10-year-olds with autism that focuses on the history of New York City trains but seeks to make the children more at ease socially. Oliver was allowed in the program a year early.

“The response to the program been so positive that the museum is planning to expand it in the fall.”

My own love affair with trains is chronicled here.

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