ASD kids and their trains!
Children With Autism, Connecting via Transit
Oliver, left, and Ravi Greene, who are regular visitors to the New York Transit Museum.
Published: August 13, 2011
Ravi Greene can tell you how to get anywhere in New York City by transit — like the beach, on the 6 train.
Ángel Franco/The New York Times
Johnathan Veras, 5, has three passions — cars, trains and robots — but finds trains the most soothing, his mother says.
“The 6 goes elevated from Whitlock Avenue to Pelham Bay Park,” he explains. “And at Pelham Bay Park, you can transfer for a Bx29 or a Bx12 — the Bx12 to Orchard Beach.”
Ravi has drafted elaborate proposals for expanded bus service in Brooklyn, and has memorized the exact date that the W train stopped running in 2010.
And he is only 5 years old.
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.
The link between trains and autism is well documented. Autism refers to a spectrum of disorders that typically includes impairment in social interaction and sometimes includes stereotyped interests, like trains. People with autism have difficulty processing and making sense of the world, so they are drawn to predictable patterns, which, of course, trains run by.
That explains why children with autism tend to be attracted more to subways, which travel on back-and-forth tracks, with little variability, than to planes, which move in more variable fashion. And they like subjects with a lot of detail that they can master.
In Britain, home to Thomas the Tank Engine and the site of Thomas fund-raiser walks organized by the National Autistic Society, the movement to tailor transit museum programs to children with autism is more established. The London Transport Museum recently hosted an event for high school students to spend time with the timetabling department. The National Railway Museum in York, England, set up a disability forum to start catering to visitors with autism.
Liz Syed started a train club in Cheshire, England, where families facing autism spectrum disorders meet monthly, play with toy trains and talk about their children’s fascinations.
“When we go to train museums, they’re absolutely filled with children with autism,” Ms. Syed said. “They’ve all been really well attended. It’s partly for the kids and partly for the parents. It’s nice to meet other people trailing around train museums.”
Of course, not every child taken with Thomas the Tank Engine has autism. What distinguishes the condition is intensity. Dr. Shirley Cohen, a retired Hunter College professor who helped start a program in New York City schools for children with autism, described how one child would not do any work in the classroom unless he could spend time at a Thomas the Tank Engine table. Another boy whose bedroom was decorated with Thomas décor never wanted to leave the room.
“What happens is that it becomes the central focus of their life and it sort of takes over,” Dr. Cohen said.
The ability of children with autism spectrum disorders to remember details can be astonishing. Lauren Hough, an adviser to the “Subway Sleuths” program, said that when she asked how to get anywhere in the city, some of the participants could tell her not just which train to take, but the exact number of stair steps in each of the stations.
One of the most extreme examples of someone obsessed with trains in New York is Darius McCollum, 46, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. Mr. McCollum has been arrested more than two dozen times, mostly for impersonating transit workers and even commandeering a subway train and a bus.
Researchers and educators in the autism world are constantly trying to manage this passion. When trains rumble over the Manhattan Bridge past the rooftop playground in Brooklyn that the League Education and Treatment Center has for its children with disabilities, some students with autism stop playing and must be calmed down because they become so excited at the sight of a train.
During a recent field trip to the transit museum organized by the treatment center, Johnathan Veras, 5, mistakenly thought the visit was over. He burst into tears and started shouting, “I want to stay!”
Ángel Franco/The New York Times
Oliver and Ravi Greene at a map of train lines at the museum. “This is really their element,” their mother says.
Some researchers have been trying to harness this preoccupation to help children with autism develop. Simon Baron Cohen, who runs the autism research center at Cambridge University, found that when young children with autism spent 15 minutes a day watching animated videos of vehicles with human faces on them, their ability to recognize emotions improved after one month.
“Kids with autism treat moving trains, especially ones that have limited motion like just going along the tracks, as a natural reward,” he said. “It catches their attention. Once you’ve got the child’s attention, you can do many types of teaching.”
Parents hope their children’s intense attraction to trains, and being around others with similar interests, can lead to something valuable in their adult lives.
“He’s very interested in electronics and building in general,” Ms. Boehm said of Oliver. “And if he’s working somewhere — he has brilliant ideas — it would help him to work in another group because a lot of times he keeps things to himself.”
On a recent Friday, the family once again visited the transit museum, which is in an abandoned subway station just over the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan.
At the museum’s entrance, the boys crouched before old subway and bus maps, and expounded on the route changes that have occurred since their printing. The A train is the city’s longest line, Oliver said, stretching 41 miles through three boroughs. (It’s actually 31 miles; Oliver’s father, Allan Greene, had given him the wrong number.) Then they pressed through the old-time turnstiles and headed to the platform, identifying each restored train they walked by.
Their mother shared another habit the boys have: When she takes them on the subway, they clap politely when certain models of train cars come into the station. “They applaud like they are at a golf tournament,” she said. “They kind of like the old ones; they sense that their time is almost up.”
Their father added: “Some people like to talk about their favorite ice cream. They just light up when they talk about trains.”