Do People with Autism Love Trains?
On 9th May 2021, while appearing on the US comedy show Saturday Night Live, Elon Musk declared that he suffers from Asperger's Syndrome. The audience responded with tremendous applause for this frank admission. Social media was abuzz with discussions on this much-stigmatized illness. Further, this increased awareness and kindled interest in a question that is a cause of debate amongst the scientific community. Do people with autism love trains?
There are different viewpoints about this.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Let us first examine the concept of autism.
First, the term Asperger syndrome, the disorder Elon Musk was suffering from, is no longer used to describe autism or any related illnesses. There is a considerable variation in the Asperger or several similar autism-like conditions. Because of these variations, it has been difficult to duplicate the different categories of autism reliably. Hence it is no longer used as a stand-alone diagnosis.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is the new classification for the different autism-related disorders. Instead of diagnosing and terming each condition separately, health professionals now treat it as a spectrum disorder. Hence the new name Autism Spectrum Disorder.
However, Asperger's syndrome is slightly different from classic autism. In Asperger syndrome, the symptoms are milder, and there is an apparent absence of the delay in speaking a language. Children with this syndrome often have good language and cognitive skills but have social challenges and unusual behavior and interests.
Autism, unfortunately, cannot be cured. Fortunately, many of the symptoms are manageable with education and support.
What is autism?
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects over 25 million people globally. Persons suffering from this disorder find difficulty in communicating and socially interacting. They also suffer from repetitive behavior. Children as young as three years show these symptoms. As the child grows older, the symptoms increase progressively.
Autism is caused mainly by genetic influence. But there are other reasons like the environmental factors. Besides, if a mother is affected by certain infections like rubella, exposure to pollution, pesticides, lead, and air pollution affect fetal growth, the probability of the child having autism increases.
Autistic people also find it difficult to read and understand the facial expressions of neurotypical people or non-autistic individuals. Similarly, a neurotypical person considers it equally difficult to read the facial expressions of an autistic individual. Generally, an autistic individual is less expressive and often cannot mimic the emotions of others and react appropriately in daily life. It is not unusual to find someone smiling at a funeral when the rest of them are keeping a sad face.
Autism affects the information processing in the nerve cells in our brain. The synapse's connection between the nerve cells gets affected, leading to multiple symptoms. However, the reasons for this breakdown of the information process are still not very well understood. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has recently classified the different forms of the condition, including Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified into the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Statistically, autism research has established that ASD affects more men than women. However, the way the symptoms manifest is different in both sexes. Autistic girls tend to show fewer symptoms in early childhood. However, without proper observation, the parents may miss out entirely that the child is autistic.
Major symptoms of ASD
ASD has highly variable symptoms. It is often difficult to identify an autistic individual because they appear like any other average person. There is nothing to distinguish an autistic person from the rest of the people.
Very often, the abilities of people with ASD vary considerably. For instance, some autistic adults may have a superior communication ability. In contrast, others may find it difficult to form even a single sentence coherently. Similarly, some may require a lot of assistance in living their day-to-day life, while others may not need any help.
Generally, most symptoms appear during early childhood, by the time the child is 2 or 3 years. There are established developmental milestones used to mark the progress of the growth of the baby. However, when a child is not reaching the commonly agreed developmental milestones, one should be alert for any signs or symptoms that could suggest autism.
Although, a delay in the milestone should not be construed as autism either. The best way for parents of children with delayed development is to consult a qualified doctor or an occupational therapist for further evaluation.
Some commonly accepted signs and symptoms of autistic kids are:
Avoids eye contact
Not responding to name by nine months
Lack of facial expressions like happiness, distress, or surprise by nine months
Not able to participate in interactive games by one year.
Does not use hand gestures, like waving goodbye by one year
Not able to register interests in a favorite toy
Not able to focus on the direction you are pointing out to
The child might also show the classic symptom of repetitive behavior or an obsession for order. For instance, young children with autism would insist on lining up the toys in a particular order and get upset if the order is changed. In addition, they keep repeating words or phrases over and over. This condition is called echolalia.
Focusing on one specific part of the toy, for instance, on the wheels, is another symptom the children exhibit. Later this could translate into a fixation for a particular topic in older children and a strong attraction for a specific hobby or interest.
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, United States, has developed a free Milestone Tracker app to help parents track the child's progress. Interested parents and others can download this app and other free resources from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/index.html.
Autism and the fascination for trains
Railways have always fascinated several people. The journey in a train coach is comfortable and scenic. No other mass transport modes like the bus, plane, or ship can ever match the trip in a train. The sight of the massive steel locomotive chugging along, pulling many coaches, winding through tunnels and mountains like a snake is unforgettable. A lot of people use trains for their daily commuting as well as for long-distance traveling.
Most of us at our young age have played with a train set and pretend play mimicking a train. Without a doubt, trains have changed a great deal the way we travel. And despite other faster modes of travel, trains still retain their charm and continue to play an essential role in the country's economic development. The love for trains continues.
The train enthusiasts are known by several names, a railfan, rail buff or train buff, railway enthusiast, or a railway buff. Many of these railfans are knowledgeable about the different locomotives, their capacities, train timetables, etc. They are also called foamers since they literally foam in their mouths with excitement at the sight of a locomotive.
While most have a fascination for trains, is it appropriate to conclude that people with autism love trains? This statement could be a case of stereotyping the autistic community because they like fidget spinners and are fixated with anything going round and moving. It is now generally accepted that they have a particular liking for most moving objects, especially trains.
Times magazine, in an investigation, reported that the New York City's Transit Museum attracted several young children with autism. The Museum housed in an authentic 1936 subway station has several exhibits of mass transportation, particularly trains. Over the years, children with autism are their most excited visitors. They eagerly explore every corner of the Museum, excitedly discussing the train schedules and history of the steam train. https://www.nytransitmuseum.org/
Recognizing that people with autism love trains, the Transit Museum and other Train Museums in the United States have proposed several initiatives to capitalize on this interest. Subway Sleuths is an afterschool program run focusing on the history of transportation in New York City. The program is popular and offers a great way to learn about trains and learn to manage social situations.
The New York Transit Museum created the subway Sleuths program with Autism Speaks and Brooklyn Community Foundation support. The program uses a strength-based approach. This the participants explore the Museum's collections and engage in transit-themed games and activities.
As the participants are called, the Sleuths collaborate as a group and practice different forms of social engagement. A special education teacher, a speech-language pathologist, and a Transit Museum educator who have experience supporting children with ASD facilitate the session.
Following the success Subway Sleuths program, many countries have adopted similar initiatives in different countries, including the United Kingdom.
"People with autism show a fascination with transport systems because they can readily be 'systemized,' either as a mechanical system or as a timetable system. People with autism have a mind that loves to systemize and detect regular patterns in the environment…. Subway Sleuths thus provides a terrific opportunity to tap into a strong interest in autism to help them learn and socialize in an autism-friendly context."
– Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, University of Cambridge and Director, Autism Research Centre https://www.nytransitmuseum.org/learn/subwaysleuths/
What attracts children with autism to trains?
As per developmental pediatrician, Amanda Bennet spinning objects always draw the attention of autistic children. Since the train has several spinning wheels, this attracts children with autism to trains. Attraction towards turning things has always been a significant symptom of children with autism.
A study found that a group of young children with autism was fascinated by more spinning, rotating, and unusual visual exploration of objects than other comparative groups. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921192/. This attraction is part of the repetitive behavior symptoms autistic people exhibit.
The most defining feature of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is repetitive and restrictive behavior. This, along with deficit in social interactions and deficit in communication skills, constitutes the three major behavioral domains of ASD. It is important to note that most repetitive behaviors are harmless and related to habits and daily routines. In some rare cases, it could turn to maladaptive behavior like self-injury or aggression.
This repetitive behavior makes children with ASD different from the other children. They have a peculiar fascination with toys like cars and trains and often refuse to part with them. This fascination with the attraction towards spinning objects could be why people with autism love trains.
Apart from the spinning wheels, the trains come in different sizes, models, and types. Besides, the train timetable is complex and exceedingly difficult to understand at the first go. These complexities challenge autistic interests, and they can master the details much faster than normal children. There are case studies where a young autistic kid can memorize complex train schedules and the specifications of different trains.
The ability to organize and create a pattern out of detailed and complex data is a strong interest often seen in the autism community. The complexity appeals to the community's propensity for predictability and the love of memorizing such information.
Along with repetitive behavior, another character usually found amongst autistic people is intense interest and focus. Often this is seen at a relatively young age. Again, special interests could be on art, music, or even as random as postcode numbers. Many young children have reported a passionate interest in Thomas, the Tank Engine.
It is significant to note that, most often, this intense interest is limited to certain areas. If a person with ASD is interested in toy trains, the focus will be on trains and other forms of transport. Further, when people with autism love trains, their interest is confined to toy trains, memorizing train routes, and watching train videos.
But when it comes to actual travel on a train, there is a sense of panic because of the large crowd, loud noises, and the general hectic nature of a train station. Most young people and even adults, to some extent, have strong sensory sensitivities. They are oversensitive to noises, crowds, temperature, and bright lights. We also have other children who are under-sensitive and may seek out such sensory experiences.
Recognizing this, a few railways have modified their stations to make them friendly for people with autism. The Community Rail Lancashire, in partnership with Northern and National Autistic Society, in the UK became one of the first railways to have an autistic people-friendly railway line. https://communityraillancashire.co.uk/news/the-autism-friendly-railway/
Despite the deep interest in trains and the related information on trains, autistic people often need intense travel training to manage the anxiety and nervousness they might face while traveling on a public rail.
OCD and Intense Interest
There is a difference between obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the intense interest one sees typically in autistic people is different. A person with OCD will indulge in repetitive behavior or spending long hours in the same behavior mainly because not doing them creates anxiety for the person.
However, in ASD, submitting oneself to repetitive processes or repetitive jobs creates a feeling of intense joy and satisfaction. The person with ASD feels a sense of achievement when they complete the task. This is what gives rise to passionate intensity. When exposed to a familiar routine in line with their sensory interests, children feel calm and relaxed. For instance, stroking the hair, either their own or others, assures them, improves their confidence, and manages anxiety.
People with autism.
Various studies have shown that people with autism are mesmerized when they see objects spin.This leads to the fascination they have for wheels that are constantly spinning. And typically, trains have several spinning wheels. This characteristic of extreme intensity, mainly when focused on trains, makes people with autism love trains.
Autism is a complex and challenging situation to deal with. Especially so because it is difficult to detect it, and a lot of time, even close family members may not recognize the symptoms common in any child during the developmental stage.
A child having attachment to favorite objects or favourite toys is quite normal and does not give rise to any suspicion that the child could be autistic. It is a good idea for the parents to watch out for the minor signs and symptoms which indicate a delay in learning language skills, a particular obsession for a new activity, or any problem behavior.
Repetitive movements, also called stimming, are an early sign to watch out. Stimming short for self-stimulation are repetitive movements without any purpose, including flapping hands, pacing, blinking, rocking, and repeating words.
Autism Spectrum Disorder affects the person's ability to interact socially with others. But with proper training and awareness, it is something manageable. People with ASD have tremendous skills which need to be identified and encouraged. After all, some of our most creative geniuses were people with ASD.
The list of famous people with autism includes Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Michelangelo, Wolfgang Mozart, Isaac Newton, Lewis Caroll, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the list goes on.
People with autism love trains because of the symmetry, the orderliness, and the spinning wheels – all of which fascinate them. They have the unique ability to focus on a hobby and enjoy it, unlike many who find it difficult to concentrate more than a minute!!