I know several children with autism-spectrum disorders, and I encounter them frequently at playgroups, library meet-ups, and even in the waiting room of a speech therapists’ office. These children vary tremendously in their personalities and learning abilities. They range from kids with Asperger’s syndrome, who speak like little professors at age two, to kids with classic autism, who are sometimes completely mute even as preteens.
One feature that almost all children with autism seem to universally share is a fascination with trains. A friend of mine and I joke that “obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine” should be part of the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for autism-spectrum disorders. It seems that almost every single autistic child– boy and girl, toddler and preteen, severe and high-function– loves trains.
But why do autistic children like trains so much? Here are a few factors that contribute to this common fascination.
Getting in Line
Children with autism tend to find emotional comfort from visual order. Often, they will stack or line objects for long periods of time, observing their appearance when they form a straight line or column. This is visually appealing, emotionally soothing, and intellectually satisfying for many children with autism.
Many children with autism like trains because they are easy to line up– and, unlike most other objects in the house, there is some apparent purpose involved in lining toy trains. Trains help autistic children to make sense of their fascination with lines– they give the behavior an intent and a purpose.
Autistic children often enjoy mechanical toys and objects. Machines are magical to children of almost all ranges of development– they operate mysteriously, but with some underlying explanation for their complex movements. To an autistic child, the inner-workings of machines, and their role in the grown-up world, are endlessly fascinating.
Trains are particularly enthralling to many children, particularly those with special needs. A child might wonder why a train moves along a track, why it puffs steam, why the train has a whistle, what it’s carrying, and so on. Children with autism-spectrum disorders are often amazed by trains’ myseterious mechanics and their equally fascinating purposes.
Much to Discover
Children with autism usually enjoy specific and relatively narrow points of interest. Trains are a fairly narrow topic, but there is much to discover within the educational category. A child with autism can spend days, weeks, months, or even years discovering specific details about trains. They enjoy memorizing the order of train cars– the engine first, the caboose last. They might learn about different characters from books and television shows such as “Thomas and Friends.” Trains may give them key insight into new vocabulary and new methods for describing their surroundings.
The minds of autistic children are fascinating, and they are a realm that parents, scientists and educators may never fully comprehend. Perhaps there is some undiscovered secret to the workings of an autistic mind, revealing why children with autism adore trains so much. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter why this trend occurs– the fact is that it brings joy to the lives of hundreds of thousands of special-needs children. So, as long as your child enjoys playing with trains, feel free to indulge his fascination. It can open a critical new window in his development.