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How my son with autism used his passion for trains to achieve his goal

The Vaillancourt family is a team. Parents, Patrick and Lisa, and oldest son, Patrick, were there every step of the way to help Alex’s dream of having his own train a reality. Alex was diagnosed with autism in 1998 and has always loved trains.

When we asked him what he would like to do when he grows up, he said he would be a train engineer.  We will be the first in line to board his train!”

These are the final sentences of a letter that we wrote to our son’s second grade teacher in 2002. At the beginning of the school year, she had asked all the parents to tell her about our children. The first paragraph of ours read: “It is with great pleasure that we write to tell you about our youngest child, Alex. He is a bright, funny, extremely hard-working, independent little boy who amazes us each day with his accomplishments.”

Today, even though Alex is almost twenty three, the descriptions still fit. He has had to work so hard throughout his life, but along the way he always found comfort in humor and facts, and blows us away with the goals he sets for himself and the achievements that follow.  

The train engineer part?  Yup, that came true, too. His love for trains has never wavered. For several years, Alex has talked about wanting to find a speeder. It’s a rail motor car that used to transport workers along the tracks. We as a family ~ because we are all involved in his many projects ~ went through many ups and downs with him in the process of trying to locate one. It was not easy (the looking part and the coping part when one could not be located), but he never gave up.     

A year ago he and I were helping his brother set up his business booth at a trade fair. Alex matter-of-factly said to me at some point during that morning, “Mom, I got a notification about a speeder for sale.”  (Honestly, I couldn’t believe he was being so calm)! He ran down the details for me and I immediately had him email the information to his dad so he could call the seller right away.  Alex does well on the phone, but he leaves business negotiations to his father.  Two days later an agreement was reached and the speeder was a reality. Alex’s uncle and aunt who lived six hours away, graciously agreed to go get it for us, as it was located in another state. Four days later, we traveled the six hours to retrieve it from them.    

This trek was a very small price to pay to see the joy on Alex’s face when he laid eyes on his new train. He had never given up looking for it and had used all of his knowledge and research to finally find one. 

He also had a very specific idea of how he wanted the speeder to look on display in our back yard. Any family living with autism KNOWS there are no cutting corners when our kids have a picture in their minds of how something should be. So, when Alex requested genuine railroad ties (NOT wood made to look like them), we sought out the people in our “village” who understood his vision and wanted to help. The village that has helped to raise Alex is a large, caring one.

Getting the lights and bell to work was a little more involved. But, you guessed it, we found some people in-the-know who became great admirers of Alex’s vision and were more than happy to help.  They’re officially village members now.

When we think of the second grader who used to have trouble even playing alongside his classmates at recess, who as a young adult sought out professionals to help him with his vision, we could not be prouder. He still needs a crew (that’s us) to keep his life running smoothly, but we are thrilled to be along for the ride.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.