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Better Understanding the Connection Between Autism and Trains

Whether you’ve seen it described in in-depth articles in such publications as the New York Times, discussed in forums, or witnessed it first-hand, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the unique connection between children with autism and trains.

This relationship was investigated a few years ago in an extensive Times article that profiled the lives of several young children and siblings with autism who found themselves drawn to New York City’s Transit Museum where visitors can get a firsthand glimpse at the history of trains and the city.

As detailed in the article—and later developed further by museums across the county—the transit museum in NYC and many other similarly-themed museums focused on transportation had been seeing this phenomenon for years in which children with autism often made up their most fervent and excited guests, feverishly discussing the finer points of train schedules and transportation history. As such, the NYC transportation museum began working with other transportation museums seeking to capitalize on the enthusiasm children with autism have for transportation and using it as a means to help them better engage with other people and the world around them.

In addition to the museum starting such initiatives as their Subway Sleuths program—an afterschool program focusing on both the history of NYC transportation and putting children with autism at ease in social situations—individuals in communities around the world are also creating an outlet for their train passion. In England for example, a number of local train clubs have popped up throughout the country focused on helping families that have children with autism to get together and play with trains.

As Liz Syed, who started such a club in Cheshire, England, observes, “When we go to train museums, they’re absolutely filled with children with autism. 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.”

But why are children with autism, in particular, drawn to trains? According to developmental pediatrician Amanda Bennett, there are several explanations for the connection. Firstly, trains have wheels and one commonality amongst children with autism is the fact that they like to watch objects spin. Thus, the fact that trains are an activity that is largely composed of wheels moving constantly makes it particularly attractive.

Secondly, trains come in a wide variety of sizes, models, types, and many more classifications. Some people with autism are greatly attracted to being able to organize objects and trains lend themselves to being sorted by type and model. In addition, trains run on highly intricate schedules, which appeals to individuals with autism’s propensity for predictability and desire to memorize and recite information.

With trains appearing throughout popular culture at many different age levels—there are cartoons for very young children about trains while older children can choose to play with more advanced models—it is no wonder that they remain a perennial favorite for individuals with autism and their families who make the annual trips to famous train stations and transportation museums throughout the country.