Trains Can Help Autistic Children Socialize

Children with autism typically struggle with social interactions and communication skills. These children also show an unusually strong affinity for trains and buses. Lately, the New York Transit Museum has taken notice. They now provide a program that helps autistic children translate their passion for trains into a social development tool, a program whose effectiveness is backed up by research, even if the true meaning of the connection remains elusive.

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Subway Sleuths Invade New York

As reported recently in The New York Times, the Education Department at the New York Transit Museum recently began an after-school program called Subway Sleuths. The program is steeped in the history of New York City's subway system. Children study various facets of the subway's history and current operations. They then work with each other to create digital media projects. The program, which lasts nine weeks and is offered twice each year, culminates with a presentation of the projects and a party for the children's family members and friends.

By having the children work together on content to which they are naturally drawn, the program allows them to practice and develop social skills, as well as valuable teamwork and problem-solving skills. The focus on trains reduces the anxiety autistic children might otherwise experience when expected to interact with others socially. The idea for the Subway Sleuths program sprung from the leaders of the museum recognizing the atypical zeal that autistic children exhibited around trains, whether it was actual trains, maps of train systems or just a picture of a train.

The Effects of Trains

In 2007, England's National Autistic Society (NAS) commissioned a study focused particularly on Thomas the Tank Engine and autism. Approximately 750 families with autistic children under the age of ten, including those from throughout Great Britain, participated in the study. In its country of origin, the Thomas series is massively popular among children and its particular effect with autistic children hadn't gone unnoticed.

The study found that some of the children learned basic emotions and facial expressions from the trains in the Thomas series. Furthermore, the children's parents were able to communicate with their children using language based in the Thomas series when regular language failed. For example, a parent reported using the term 'washdown' in place of 'bath' and motivating a child by saying he's 'really useful,' which is a common goal of Thomas.

Like the children at the New York Transit Museum, the British children were found to have an increased feeling of safety and security when watching Thomas, making them more calm. They had increased levels of interaction with their siblings, even if the socialization was limited to bonding over a Thomas DVD. While the exact reason trains help autistic children socialize is unknown, there is speculation that it's related to the predictability of trains, in terms of their movement along fixed tracks and their regular schedules. The NAS study posited that Thomas is helpful because of its straightforward stories, clear and simple facial features and other comforting elements. Ultimately, regardless of the reason why it's effective, more parents are exploring the benefits trains offer in helping their children develop.

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