Tracking Passion in ASD
By Intern Carlotta Bettencourt
The Sherkow Center team was fascinated to read the New York Times article, For Autistic Boys, the Subway Is Actually Soothing. In fact, we at the Center already know that it can be difficult to transport some children on the spectrum, and as such offer transportation services: in lieu of a more traditional nanny, a trained staff member escorts an ASD client between school and other activities such as our Spark social group, and ultimately serves as a therapeutically-informed and supportive figure for the child, helping the child process the transitions between school and other activities, and is supportive if a difficult moment arises from a transition or other trigger.
As an intern at the Center, I have had first-hand experience taking the NYC subway with autistic boys. Although each boy is on a different “level” of the spectrum, I have always been astonished by the fascination each one has with the subway system. While therapy treatment for ASD mostly focuses on behavioral and emotional regulation, it is important to also strengthen the child’s sense of identity by emphasizing remarkable abilities. In this case, the unique ability to memorize the subway routes and excel at spatial navigation seems to be a remarkably common strength for these children.
How we Understand this Fascination
At the Sherkow Center, we emphasize the importance of neurobiological wiring, as well as prediction and pattern making: these are the tools that a developing child uses in order to scaffold his cognitive resources and, ultimately, how he learns what to expect as he navigates the world. Our classic example of this principle is the image of a mother with a baby bottle: a hungry, crying infant will summon a mother with a baby bottle or breast for food, and after numerous repetitions of this scenario under normal development, the baby will begin to react to and be soothed by just the image of mother arriving. Ideally, baby will internalize this pattern (that mother’s arrival ->leads to food -> leads to positive feelings), and even before seeing the bottle or getting the nipple in his mouth, he will now calm down just at the sight of mother, as he is able to predict that food is now on the way!
Clearly, pattern making and internal scaffolding is an integral part of development. In the ASD population, which has a slightly different neurobiological wiring of the brain, these youngsters still receive pleasure from the pattern-making and prediction process. Of course, this makes the MTA public transport system incredibly appealing to these children! As the article already acknowledges, the set routes and timetables are a huge attraction for autistic boys, but we believe that this is due to their photographic memory as well as the inherent pleasure of making patterns and predictions. An autistic child refusing certain train lines may seem “stubborn,” but what we cannot see is the complexity of the issue: he is reciting every stop on the Z line out loud because of his superb photographic memory, and his excitement is building as he predicts each stop and then arrives at each one, and then there is an opportune service delay and a chance for one of two transfers, which means a chance to be creative!
New or “unknown” things may seem scary to an autistic child, but as all of this occurs in the static, relatively unchanging MTA system, the child can exercise a choice and some control over the route while remaining in the “predictable” realm. It is incredibly important to understand how satisfying it is for a child, to allow his strengths to shine, and subway riders should keep this in mind when they see an excited or “stimming” subway rider.
A Typical Trip
New Yorkers certainly don’t idealize the MTA. Sure, it is convenient at times, since the city traffic is horrible. However, very quickly the loud noises, disturbing smells, and big crowds become very overwhelming even for an adult. One would think that for a child with ASD, these sensorial aspects would make the experience even more difficult. Yet, we have noticed that the sensorial aspects do not seem to bother these children at all, and their excitement becomes contagious along the way in spite of these “negative” aspects. The normally irritating sound of an arriving train suddenly becomes a positive stimulation, even to my own senses, as I clearly watch each boy’s eyes brighten up when staring at an arriving train.
As we enter a subway car, the normal routine is to immediately look for available seats to claim. However, when we are with our ASD clients, the main priority becomes being in the very first car at the front-facing windowed doors: this allows for the best uninterrupted view of the tracks. As mentioned in the original article, one other subway feature that may appeal to autistic children is the rapid visual stimulation passing train cars and tracks offer. Depending on the boy, some might prefer to go to the end or the beginning of the subway train, but the goal seems to be the same: to claim a prime viewing spot on the first or last car, for an uninterrupted and intimate experience between the boy, and the tracks. The sparkle in each and every boy’s eyes are unexplainable.
The mastery of the subway lines, linked to these children’s uncannily perceptive photographic memory and pleasure with pattern-making, allows the child to personally interact with geography and public transport, and as discussed before this creative process can lead to limitless route possibilities within the closed MTA system. One time while transporting a boy from school to the Center, a subway line I usually took to get from point A to point B was down. I immediately starting searching for the subway map to find an alternative way. Effortlessly and before even seeing the map, the boy immediately cited two other ways we could arrive, by making one or two different transfers. Many times during previous transports, this same boy requested and then guided us through many different subway and bus routes; by this time, I knew I could blindly trust an eight-year-old when it came to find a reliable subway route!
Encourage their Passion
It may be surprising that autistic boys enjoy the subway, even in spite of the overwhelming sensorial aspects of it, but again and again we have witnessed this common fascination among boys on the spectrum. To those who have or know a child on the spectrum, there is a high probability that you have seen them wear t-shirts, socks, or any kind of clothing with a subway line logo. This kind of clothing is so popular that it can even be found at the Transit Museum at Grand Central. If you have a child on the spectrum that enjoys public transportation, an idea for a fun family outing might be an afternoon spent exploring the MTA routes, discussing together the fastest or most exciting route options, and making a final stop at the Transit Museum for a chance to see all of the different subway-related books, clothes, and toys they have to encourage your child’s interest.