Trains and Autism



Many children with autism have a well-documented interest in trains, enthralled by their motion and predictable patterns. They tend to prefer trains to planes because of their back-and-forth motion, in contrast to the variability of flight patterns. With their complex schedules and maps, trains have a great deal of information for those with autism to enthusiastically master.

In recent years, the New York Transit Museum has seen a surge of patrons on the autism spectrum and is constantly receiving field trip requests from autism classes. Riding the wave of this popularity, the museum created an after-school program for 9- and 10-year-olds called “Subway Sleuths” that concentrates on the history of New York City trains while fostering the social skills of the youngsters. Lauren Hough, an adviser to the “Subway Sleuths” program, was blown away by the participants’ command of details. When she asked how to get anywhere in the city, some of them could tell her not just which train to take, but the exact number of stair steps in each of the stations. The program has been such a hit it will be expanding in the fall. 

Britain is the leader in the movement to harness the enthusiasm children with autism have for trains. Their National Autistic Society routinely organizes Thomas the Tank Engine fund-raiser walks for autism. High school students with autism were recently invited to visit the timetabling department of The London Transport Museum and The National Railway Museum in York, England initiated a disability forum to better serve visitors with autism. At the local level one autism family support group started a train club, inviting the kids to play with trains while their parents talk.

Here in Seattle, a train runs along the beach at Carkeek park. When it approaches, children scattered throughout the woods and shore rush to see the cars pass by. On a cautionary note, children with autism can be drawn to railroad tracks in the same way they are drawn to water. At Carkeek, my son was fascinated by the warning lights and wanted to climb up to the tracks to look at them, oblivious to the danger.

It’s interesting that in the news there’s been reports on neurological reasons for children with autism having difficulty with multitasking. It stands to reason that individuals with a one track mind would find delight in trains, and it’s a wonderful trend that this enthusiasm is being constructively channeled.


Susan Moffitt is the mother of high functioning twin sons with autism. When not advocating for them, she pursues her multiple creative passions of fine art, piano composition and writing. She is the author of "Upstream," a compilation of poetry, fiction and anecdotal tales that deal with raising twins with autism. For more information, visit

4 Responses to Trains and Autism

  1. Debbie K. says:

    When my son was smaller, we had a membership to the Sacramento Train Museum and used to go about once a month. For $15 a year you get unlimited visits for the child and one adult, train rides on the weekends and invitations to special events and parties. We even got to see the “real” Thomas the Tank Engine when he came here. (I was truly starstruck!) They had a Thomas table where the kids could play, and I’d usually have to drag him out crying when it was time to go. As he got older, though, he began not liking the chaos and all the other kids fighting over the trains. Thomas was eventually replaced in his heart, first by Darth Vader and now Mario. I miss those sweet days at the train museum!

  2. Susan says:

    That’s a good tip, thanks. I know what you mean about that kind of nostalgia for bygone eras…


  3. TaShann says:

    I have a little brother and sister that are autistic. My little brother was never really into trains. He was more into Dinosaurs and Le-gos. He is a very smart little boy. He is 10 years old and he is the smartest child I know. But I am scared that he might over ride his brain. He love’s to read and draw. My little sister is ADHD and autistic. She scares me all the time. Cause she knows what to do and say to make you mad. And that drives me crazy. All I know is that I would like some more information about this disorder. If you wouldn’t mind. Thank you for your time.

  4. Susan says:

    Well there’s so much information, it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s tons in the archived articles of this website, and in other sections of this website as well.

    A Google search will give you zillions of directions to move in.

    I don’t know where you live, but there are many support groups now for siblings of children with autism. If you google “support for autism siblings”, there’s online and in person resources.

    You can also look up your local autism society chapter.

    If you have more specific questions I can address, I’d be happy to.


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Did You Know?

  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
  • * Autism now affects 1 out of 88 children
  • * Autism affects 1 in 54 boys
  • * 1.7 million Americans have some form of autism
  • * 4 out of 5 autistic children are boys

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