German Cheung, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 22159

Food for Thought

Why Train Fascination?

April is Autism Awareness Month and I'm going to write a few posts sharing my understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other related conditions.

First, an older article from New York Times on those who have this condition and their fascination with trains.

Why train fascination?

To understand this, we need to know that autistic individuals are desperate for both internal structure and defined (external) boundaries to help them discover and, later, sustain, their sense of self. Trains, like time-tables, routines, lining toys up, and etc., offer exactly those. Trains run on concrete, unchanging tracks and follow a defined, consistent route, traveling from one station to another, from start until the destination. It is, therefore, an extremely soothing experience for autistic individuals to witness, time and time again, trains predictably going through one station to another and to know that they do so day in and day out.

I must also stress that it is not only soothing for them, but it also holds the structure they desperately and critically need for their sense of existence. Take the example of a dumpling, it is the skin/dough that defines and holds the shape of the dumpling as well as its contents (the minced meat, shrimp, vegetables). The fillings inside the dumpling is merely some minced meat without the skin. To put differently, we do not call minced meat a dumpling, unless we know there is a skin/dough to hold the meat.

This is also why we see many autistic individuals rely heavily on sensations and senses to create and maintain these boundaries, for example, through touching, putting pressure on objects, smelling, rocking, maintaining a particular posture, scratching or picking one's skin. These serve the purpose of, if you will, forming a skin to give definition to their existence.

As mentioned in the article, not all ASD sufferers are the same. This is most certainly true for their fascinations as well. They all have their own preferences and that, just because you know trains or timetables work for the kids described in the article, it does not mean you could "prescribe" these fascinations to other ASD sufferers. Their preferences are highly individualized and people from the outside may not fully understand how and why they work. It is something we will have to respect, appreciate and be amazed about how creative our psyche is to find ways to meet our psychic needs, even before language can describe.