What is it about autism and trains?

By developmental pediatrician Amanda Bennett

Today’s “Got Questions?” answer is by developmental pediatrician Amanda Bennett. Dr. Bennett directs the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

What is it about autism and trains? We know it’s not just our son because we keep meeting other children – and adults – on the spectrum who are so fascinated by them.

Trains certainly seem to be a popular topic for the children we see in our autism clinic. I see several probable reasons for the wide appeal among individuals on the autism spectrum – regardless of their ages. 

First, trains have wheels, and this will appeal to those whose sensory interests include watching objects spin. This is certainly common among children with autism. In fact, spending an extraordinary amount of time spinning and rotating toys is among the signs that a toddler may be at increased risk of going on to develop autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Second, trains can be categorized into different models, types, sizes, etc. For some individuals with ASD, the ability to organize objects into categories is very appealing. I’ve had several patients who could share more details than I knew existed about different types of trains!

Trains also come with schedules. This, too, appeals to many people with ASD and is in line with a need for predictability and the inclination to memorize and recite information. In fact, we’ve learned to tap into the strong appeal of schedules to help individuals with autism learn and participate in community activities.

Plus, trains have features that can support an enduring and developing interest across a lifetime. For instance, many children – including children on the spectrum – love the train characters in videos and TV shows such as Thomas the Tank Engine and Chuggington. For older children and adults, model trains can be fun to build and have mechanical features that can be interesting to take apart and reassemble. 

Whatever the reason, when a person with ASD shows a strong interest in a topic, I often encourage caregivers to use it as a motivation or reward to reinforce other desired behaviors.  Many of my families use “taking the train” as a motivation for their child to complete a medical visit without a tantrum. Many parents likewise use time watching train videos (available on YouTube) to reward a child for behavioral goals such as toilet training or completing a disliked task.

In addition, a passionate interest such as trains can offer an enjoyable opportunity to engage with your child – whether it involves talking about a favorite Thomas the Tank Engine video or a recent family trip to a local train depot.

So if you aren't doing so already, I encourage you to use the many enjoyable opportunities for communication that this special interest brings to your son and family.

Besides, trains really are pretty cool, don’t you think?