Model Railways and Autism

If you are reading this, chances are you have at least a passing interest in model railways and trains. Not all of you will identify as ‘enthusiasts’, let alone ‘trainspotters’, but you still share a common interest with millions of others around the world. There are many hundreds of reasons and motivations for an interest in railways. Though some have a general interest in all things, others focus exclusively on one particular aspect. 

For people living with autism, an interest in railways and trains can be especially important. Trains can provide a source of reassurance and a means through which to develop key skills in communication and interaction. This article presents just some of the reasons why so many autistic people take an interest in model railways and trains, gleaned from various articles on the web.

Jacob’s model of West Hendon

What is Autism?

At times the world can seem a bewildering mess of hypocrisy and paradox. On a daily basis, we process thousands of gestures, social cues, and expressions, many of which are subtle and even contradictory. For those who live with Autism Spectrum Disorder, navigating this labyrinth of subtext can prove a challenging or impossible task. Therefore, people with autism often struggle with communication and find difficulty in interacting with others.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, people with Autism Spectrum Disorder often find it difficult to negotiate school, work, and social environments. They may also exhibit ‘restricted interests and repetitive behaviors’. Fearing the unpredictability of social interaction, many Autistic people find reassurance and comfort in patterns and routines. 

Many autistic people develop an enthusiastic and meaningful interest in railways. This not only offers an enjoyable diversion and a channel for their energies, but can also help in developing their understanding of the world.

Introducing Jacob

For nineteen year old Jacob, his model railway not only provides stimulation, with its moving parts and sounds, but also satisfies his discerning eye for detail. 

Jacob and his layout

When Jacob and his mother, Lynn, first contacted Rocket Railways earlier this year, he was planning an expansion to his 8’ x 4’ layout. He wanted to make additions to the OO gauge scale model of his local station in northwest London, West Hendon, as it was in the 1980s. We supplied him with some track to help with the expansion, which included the construction of a shunting yard. 

Jacob was kind enough to send us some photographs of his layout, which we are delighted to share. You can clearly see the product of his creative flair in the design of the station, with hand painted detailing and signage. The layout is testament to Jacob’s attention to detail. Thanks for sharing, Jacob!

Stimulation and Learning

As Jacob’s layout shows, model railways provide an important outlet for creativity with opportunities for developing many practical skills. Railways can appeal to autistic people at all levels, as education, entertainment, and reassurance. 

Train wheels and coupling rods provide stimulation for those whose sensory interests include watching spinning objects. A turning wheel can be reassuring in its seemingly inevitable revolutions. This can have a calming influence. Furthermore, railways govern the path and movement of a train, which lends a sense of predictability. 

Similarly, trains usually operate in accordance with a timetable. These schedules also provide reassurance in their organised structure, alleviating anxiety born out of unpredictability. Timetables are also data sets which can be memorised and recited. 

A passenger studies the route map on Jacob’s layout

The categorisation of trains and locomotives into classes, types, liveries, and eras appeals to those who enjoy organising and collecting. This propensity for collecting is linked to the attraction of completeness, as well as the need to digest and memorise information. 

Railways and trains have a real potential to contribute towards meeting the intellectual and developmental needs of many autistic people. Their interest is empowering, and fosters confidence. Some therapists even use trains as a tool for promoting skills in communication and abstract thinking. 

Thomas the Tank Engine

The famous blue engine is especially important to young people with autism. A study conducted by The National Autistic Society in the summer of 2001 found that Thomas the Tank Engine was the single most popular cartoon character among children on the autistic spectrum. Furthermore, their attachment with Thomas was often longer and more intense than that with other characters. 

The story lines are reassuring, typically involving the resolution of a problem. The television series presents these stories with a calm and clear narration. Each character is easily recognisable, distinguished by their bold colour and shape. Furthermore, their expressive faces show clear emotions which are easy to understand. 

A working party on Jacob’s West Hendon

Community

Model railways appeal to all sorts of people for a great variety of reasons. Despite the differences between our motivations, we are united by a common interest. For people with autism, an interest in trains and railways is often especially important, as it gives them an opportunity to express themselves and develop key skills. It also means they are members of a worldwide community of like minded people, which is perhaps the greatest thing of all.

Further Reading

Another article by Dr. Amanda Bennett provides an excellent overview of the subject from the perspective of a developmental paediatrician: ‘What is it About Autism and Trains?!‘, published 5 September 2018