Monday, October 19, 2009

Autism and Trains: A Special Connection

Until last spring, I had no idea there was a connection between autism and trains.

Then a family with an autistic child came to one of my layout open houses. I didn't know he was autistic at the time--to me, he was just a young man who liked trains.

Later, I received an e-mail from the young man's father. In it, he thanked me for the visit, and noted that it was a highlight for his son since he was autistic.

"I don't know if you noticed anything about the boy with us (I say boy, but he's 18), but he is autistic and seeing your layout made a huge impact on him. He was very happy and wouldn't stop talking about it."

Getting that note made me curious about the autism-train connection. As it turns out, it's not uncommon, as I learned from a conversation with Sandra McKay, Excutive Director of the Autism Society of Manitoba.

“A large number of children with autism are fascinated by trains,” she said. “There are even computer programs that use trains to help them develop emotionally.”

A little while later, the link became more personal when a friend told me her four year-old son, Jon-Paul, had recently been diagnosed with autism.

I asked her if he liked trains. The answer was a resounding yes. He likes trains so much, she said, that they have to be sure to drive past railway tracks whenever they are driving around town.

Playing with trains, she told me, “is a calming activity” for Jon-Paul, she added. "Not only does it help him regulate his emotions, but we can capitalize on his interest in trains and use them as a learning tool."

According to the National Autistic Society of Great Britain, a number of children with autism are attracted to trains because they like how trains are arranged in lines, how cars are connected, and the orderly and predictable nature of railways.

Thomas the Tank Engine is a special favourite for many children with autism; the friendly faces on the locomotives and cars helps them learn to express their own feelings and emotions. (You can read the article at <

With this special link in mind, I was happy to recommend that the Winnipeg Model Railroad Club, of which I am a member, select the Autism Society as the recipient of proceeds from this year's annual fall "Great Canadian Train Show." (We had previously donated proceeds to the local children's hospital foundation.)

It's always gratifying to help a family in need. It's even more special when we can link our hobby and the needs of parents of children with autism. As my friend says: “Getting a diagnosis of autism for your child can be devastating. There is a steep learning curve to understanding autism, so families facing this diagnosis need all the support they can get. The club’s support is very welcome.”

Anyone else out there have any experience with the autism-trains connection?


  1. A good friend of mine has an autistic son. His son N is totally nuts about trains. My friend brought N over to see my layout before it was dismantled, and the son was beside himself with excitement. I wouldn't say it was "calming" for him but he really really enjoyed it.

  2. Don't ask how I found your blog (I am not quite sure myself...?)
    But I belong to a 7.5" scale (SCRR, same thing as the AVR in Winnepeg) club in the Minneapolis area. There is at least one father and son who come out all the time and just sit back and the son watches for hours on end durring our meets. I don't think I have even seen them ride. But I have seen the connection between trains and Autism multiple times.

  3. My 3 year old son loves trains and has autism. I found this article by searching "autism and trains" because I wondered about the connection myself. I have also found that he LOVES horses and that horses are actually used as therapy for children/people with autism.