A Really Inclusive Engine: autism and the steam train

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches,

inclusive engines 003Like many families living with autism we spent hours when Dylan was young listening to Thomas audio tapes, watching Thomas videos and reading Thomas books. Dylan had a variety of engines and Thomas paraphernalia and while he didn’t play with these he did carry the engines around with him. They also proved really useful during Dylan’s home education programme (about more of which in a future post).

Because of Dylan’s discomfort in noisy and crowded locations we didn’t often take him to public events when he was young. However, we made an exception for the Thomas the Tank Engine fun days which are a regular feature of schedules at train stations all over England. I’m not sure how much Dylan enjoyed these – I certainly found them stressful – but if there were any outing that was likely to be a success with Dylan, we told ourselves, then it was these.

And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:

Later, during family holidays, we took Dylan for rides on regular steam trains. I wasn’t sure whether these would be of any interest without the storybook engines. However, the trips were a big hit with Dylan. While the cartoon faces and colours are undoubtedly part of Thomas’ charm, at the heart of Dylan’s passion appears to be a deep love of steam.

Accommodating the various interests of children within a family can be complex when living with autism. While we were a two parent family Dylan and my daughter could do separate supervised activities. As a single parent, however, this was no longer an option. It took me a while to realise that what made one of my children very happy might make the other very unhappy.

The photograph I use on this blog of Dylan and I on a tandem was taken by my daughter while we were on holiday in Norfolk in 2010. I had proposed a steam train trip which I knew Dylan would like. We were about to set off to drive to the railway when my daughter announced that she didn’t want to go. Why did we always have to go on a steam train when we went on holiday? She was fed up with steam trains. She had no interest in them. She didn’t even like steam trains. The compromise we arrived at that day was that we would hire cycles and ride on the track that ran alongside the steam train so that Dylan would have the excitement of the passing trains while my daughter had the joy of cycling.

All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;

The Norfolk revelation was important because it reminded me that while I might be prepared to indulge Dylan’s passions others might not be so tolerant. At that stage steam trains were certainly something which I tolerated rather than enjoyed: Do you think that I like them? I had asked my daughter, I go on steam trains for your brother.

This was actually taken on a later trip - but it was dark like this the first time!

This was actually taken on a later trip – but it was dark like this…

I felt some sympathy with my daughter’s position when, the following year, I found myself before dawn one Saturday morning on a cold, dark platform at our local railway station. Dylan had started collecting flyers advertising steam train trips and leaving these for me on my desk. He had been very persistent with one leaflet. However many times I moved it into a drawer or onto my pile of ‘maybe papers’, Dylan would retrieve and replace it at the centre of my desk. Eventually I gave in and booked two tickets for a day trip.

The train was due to depart from our local station at 6am and return at 10pm. The destination was Scarborough, a seaside resort on the Yorkshire coast where we would have two or three hours to look around. The rest of the time would be spent on the train. On the platform that morning I eyed the groups of waiting men with their thermos flasks, goggles, manuals and gadgets and felt decidedly out of my comfort zone. Apart from a range of practical worries about how I would manage the day I was dreading having to spend such a long time doing something I wasn’t interested in.

And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

The trip to Scarborough went well; in fact, I told a friend later, I’d sort of enjoyed it. As well as groups of men like the ones I’d spotted waiting on the platform, I discovered there were couples on the train. I thought that some of the women were probably there as accompanying partners but, I told myself, that was what I was (except I was accompanying a son instead of a husband). On that trip, Dylan and I were seated with a pleasant couple who inducted us into the culture of the steam train. They were friendly and supportive and gave me the confidence to look for other ways I could extend Dylan’s interests (you can read a bit more about that here).

Last year Dylan and I took another steam train, this time to Carlisle. It was a longer journey with less time at our destination but I approached the trip with more confidence. This time I’d brought the weekend newspaper, telling myself that while I didn’t share Dylan’s interest in steam trains, it was relaxing for me. I found our seats and was organising Dylan when a man charged by, knocking the coffee I was holding out of my hand and the contents all over me and other passengers. A man nearby became very upset on our behalf, complaining at the man who had barged me and wanting to find and reprimand him. However, I had seen something in the hurrying-man’s manner: Oh it’s fine, I said – I have some tissues. Don’t worry.

As the trip got underway I listened with interest to the men with whom we were seated. Four were together as a party, celebrating a birthday, and two were travelling alone. They were all extremely kind to us and good with Dylan, chatting and sharing their food. As the miles passed, the men relaxed in our presence. I don’t think I’d had an opportunity to observe men together in such a naturalistic setting before. Being alongside this group felt like a rare privilege in that it gave me an eye into the world of male friendship. I observed among this group of men (against all stereotypes) examples of emotional communication, intimacy and tenderness. I remembered the group of men I had eyed on the platform a couple of years earlier; my experience this trip, I realised, was giving me a different way of thinking.

Sitting alongside this group of men also gave me a new way of thinking about steam trains. As I listened in to their conversation I started to notice things I hadn’t previously. The tick tick ticking of the engine as it laboured up the inclines. The beauty of its carriages curling around the iconic Ribblehead viaduct. The role of water and pathway stops. The significance of the different classes of engines. The precision of the timings marked on the route maps we had been allocated. The beauty of the livery. And then (with my poet’s head) the scattering of deer and horses as we plunged through their world, the play of steam on the carriage windows and a memory of my Grandma telling me that steam engines sing alamamoosh alamamoosh.

As Dylan and I were readying ourselves to leave the train and saying our goodbyes, one of the men told me that they had moderated their behaviour a bit in my presence – they’d had a system of kicking each other under their table if they thought anyone out of line. I thanked them for that, and for the tea, biscuits and entertainment. I had, I told them, rather enjoyed the trip and been touched by their friendship.

 Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;

 It’s not usual to comment so openly to strangers. However there is something about the steam train, perhaps, which encourages a sense of community. The idea of community felt particularly relevant on the next trip Dylan and I made. At Easter this year we travelled to Newcastle with our friends the Corbetts (who appeared in my earlier post about a weekend in London). This time the train was longer than on previous trips and as we were seated in the back carriage the sense of being steam-hauled was less powerful. We were too far from the engine to hear the ticking or to witness the dance of steam outside the window. The only clues that our trip was special were the vintage carriages we were travelling in and the speed of the train.

Easter 2014 002At one of our pathway stops we were overtaken by a diesel, on its way to Newcastle. We could have taken that service, I said, and had longer in Newcastle. But the people on that train were commuting, Julie pointed out; they were on their way to somewhere else and the train was simply a means to an end. For us, the journey was the point, not the destination. We were being hauled by the Duchess of Sutherland 46233 (the second time for Dylan and I). When we arrived at Newcastle we would leave some of our belongings on the train, unlike the commuters on the diesel service, because we would be returning to the Duchess. We weren’t concerned to get home by the quickest service but to continue our journey on the 46233. We had a shared interest and purpose. We were a community.

Easter 2014 026While I wasn’t wishing the day away I was looking forward to the journey home. Will they put the engine on this end of the train on the return journey? I’d asked one of the stewards as we left Chesterfield. I was looking forward to having more of a sense of steam, I explained. We’ll have to see how she turns at Newcastle, had been his non-committal reply. So I was delighted to find, when we gathered on the platform for the journey home, that the last carriage had become the front carriage for the return trip and that we would be directly behind the engine.

Easter 2014 028As we left Newcastle Dylan went into a trance as the white steam rubbed its back against the window pane and the ticking of the engine lulled us. I sat back with a book of poems and bag of almonds thinking life did not get much easier or pleasanter than this. But after less than an hour, just outside Durham, we came to a halt. The 75 year old Duchess, it seemed, had run out of steam. We eyed the anxious-looking stewards and listened in to requests for technical explanations from passengers with gadgets. None of these, however, were going to lessen the impact of the word ‘rescue’. A diesel had been requested, it seemed, and was on its way to us from York. We would be steam-free for the rest of the journey and stationary for at least the next hour.

We were glad that we had saved our picnic for the return journey. Being stranded on a broken steam train is not the best formula for a party which includes two autistic adults, at least one of whom has a love of steam and an inability to wait. We unpacked the picnic and I pretended to Dylan that this was a scheduled stop so the drinks didn’t spill. What I noticed was how accepting everyone was of the breakdown. No one was complaining that we weren’t continuing our journey by steam. I didn’t hear anyone moaning that we would be later than scheduled arriving home. There was none of the hoo-ha you get on a regular service when it breaks down. Just as we were a community in our outbound joy, so we were united in our disappointed return. The diesel which rescued us was, Julie observed: a really useful engine.

 Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!

If I’d had the crystal ball I sometimes wish for and been forewarned that the train would break down, that we would have to wait for nearly two hours to be rescued, and that we would return by diesel instead of steam I would, of course, not have gone. However, I learned (again) that sometimes we cope with the unexpected better than we imagine. Dylan managed the wait and rather enjoyed the trip home. He was bouncing up and down on his seat as we came through Ferrybridge, which could have been because the diesel was hitting some pretty cool speeds but could equally have been due to these.

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One of Dylan’s special interests is cooling towers. We had some in Sheffield which Dylan loved but the council knocked them down and now Dylan only has photos of them. His face was a picture as we passed these in the early evening sun. He strained in his seat to watch them retreating as we passed. Here was some steam compensation, then, for our train’s lack of it. I’m not entirely sure I understand the attraction of cooling towers. I do, however, finally understand the love of steam: Alamamoosh alamamoosh I whispered to Dylan, conjuring his Great-Grandma’s engine in his ear.

 Here is a cart run away in the road,
Lumping along with man and load;

 I haven’t forgotten the man on the Carlisle train who bumped into me. It transpired he had been rushing to secure prime place at a carriage door. Standing at a train door with your head out of the window is, I later realised, an essential way of travelling for some passengers. I saw the man again on our arrival home that day, his face blackened from soot except for two pale rings where his goggles had been. What I’d glimpsed in my earlier encounter with him was his connection with Dylan and myself. Some people were on the train, I realised, to answer a need which does not always take account of social etiquette. Dylan would have bumped past someone too if he had something particular in mind. So, in fact, might I.

DSCF1474I’ve not embraced the steam experience enough to buy goggles and give up my seat but it’s true to say that I look forward to the trips now as much as Dylan. I doubt this is something I would ever have discovered without Dylan. I like that our trips by steam train have become a shared interest and I love that this is a result of Dylan communicating his passion to me. It makes our relationship feel more equal; we can learn from and inspire each other. Now I think of these days out as trips on the train of inclusion, the full spectrum shining quietly through the carriages.

 And here is a mill, and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!


The italicised extracts are from R.L. Stevenson’s poem From a Railway Carriage. The poem is in two eight-line stanzas which I’ve split into couplets and run in sequence through my text. I’ve taken the poem from my first ever poetry book, Poems Old and New Book II: Magic Words, which was compiled by H.N. Alton and published by The Grant Educational Co. (London) Ltd in 1941. The book belonged to my mum before me (she was given it for Christmas in 1942) so there is a link back to her mother (my grandmother) who appears in this blog post. In my memory Grandma told me that trains say alamamoosh after reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem to me from this anthology.

13 thoughts on “A Really Inclusive Engine: autism and the steam train

  1. Liz:

    “I have often thought that Thomas the Tank Engine ought to appear in the diagnostic for early identification of autistic spectrum condition.”

    Ben loved that show, his favorite Christmas present being a wooden Brio train set with a Thomas the Tank engine train. He has a train layout with probably $2000 worth of train sets and buildings/cars/finally people set in the 1930’s that is added to every Christmas since. Even now he volunteers at a train museum, working in the shops. He’s done it for 5 years.The men he works with at the shop are all pretty successful, but this is their true love, not their daytime jobs. Ben is 20, not yet employed, but going to school. This summer, he hopes to use the machine shop schooling (he attends Tech college) to create (machine) his own garden steam engine. His favorite show now is a “rural t.v.” show of steam engines of the past, and for an hour will watch different ones that were mostly filmed in the 70’s and 80’s. I asked him why, just last week, he loved steam engines so much.

    He lives and breathes steam engines. I asked him, why?

    “It’s because their machine works show on the outside”. I’m paraphrasing…but there is a particular word for external motor works. He’s very visual, and used to be enthralled by fans as a baby. It’s the movement that draws them, according to some. To calm himself, he will make steam train sounds, and the clickety-clack of the wheels against the rails. It is a consuming interest.

    I had a nephew who loved vacuum cleaners. Honest to God, knew all the brands and how they worked when he was 3 years old. He was obsessed by them, so it isn’t always trains…but it is often machines of one sort or another. He is kind of a genius, too, and is teaching English in Argentina, where he found his Argentinian wife. He has a child, too. But he loved vacuums.

    Tiny Grace Notes, a blog here in America, noted last year that “Why do autistic kids love trains?” was the most frequent question she was asked. She is autistic, herself, and she and a partner have 2 children. She is a college professor. Mother’s Day, here in America, and National Train Day were the same day, at least according to her blog. http://tinygracenotes.blogspot.com/2013/05/why-do-so-many-autistic-people-love.html

    I’m glad you can share Dylan’s interest. I am getting used to it, too. For Ben’s 18th birthday we planned a trip to see his birthmother by rail. We even had a sleeping car, and all our meals were on the train. It was a pleasant way to see the country where we could share our ideas about what was passing by in the observation car.

    Sorry for the length. I just wanted you to know some kids are really, really into steam!


    • Hello Rose – lovely to hear from you and what an interesting comment. Ben’s brio collection sounds awesome – I have put D’s in the cellar but would love to have room one day to keep it out and have a train set room (like you sometimes see in the movies!). Ben’s explanation of the machine showing on the outside is fascinating. I’ve known autistic children into fans and vacuum cleaners too. I love the snippet about your nephew and his vacuum love. Dylan also likes these. It takes me ages to clean as he is always wanting me to take the vac apart so he can feel it on his hand. I’m absolutely convinced the interest is a kind of genius. The fact that mother’s day and train day coincide in the US is just wonderful 🙂 As for that sleeping car – well that is something I dream about. The UK isn’t really big enough (just a few routes available) but Europe or US one day would be fab. Liz x p.s. will check out the blog post you mention. Thank you! Ben’s life sounds really great 🙂


  2. I love your posts. The picture of the two of you is wonderful. I think that is what made the Science Museum trip so important for me, the opportunity to go out as a family, all 5 of us. So often we are planning around 1 individual so the others miss out so much. They always surprise you. Managing to cope ok with the wait is amazing. The way you came up with the idea of a schedule stop so as not to spill drinks shows how we are constantly adapting to cope. You sound like you had a memorable time together, thank you for posting.


    • Thanks Tinc. You’re right – it’s the shared experience which makes it feel so special. I might have taken this for granted without autism but as most of my experience has been the opposite – Dylan preferring to do things alone – I really appreciate being able to do something with him. Your mention of the science museum’s early bird makes me think that actually this is exactly what the inclusive and autism friendly events are trying to support – us being able to do things together. So perhaps the point about the steam train trips is that they are already autism friendly by their very nature 🙂 Lovely to hear from you – thought about you the other day when I was writing my post on sensory interventions as I mentioned my all-time favourite museum, the Foundling Museum in Coram Square. Do you know it? Have you written about it I wonder? I love it there! Liz


      • Oh good – I would love to hear what you think about it. I was completely charmed by the museum and very moved by the ‘Threads of Feeling’ exhibition a few years ago. I have been working on a poem about it since 🙂


  3. I enjoyed this post very much. While I don’t share Dylan’s passion for steam trains, I enjoy the sensation of travelling by train. It’s hard to describe the kind of distance you can travel overland in Canada to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but I had the opportunity many years ago to spend 36 hours on a train travelling from Winnipeg to Montreal. One of the things I recall liking very much was that same sense of community with strangers that you describe.


    • Your trip sounds special – and it has reminded me of a train journey I took from El Paso to Zacatecas in Mexico when I was a student – that was a long train ride – perhaps not 36 hours but I do remember the sense of community which emerged for the time we were together. I read a book by Jenny Diski a few years ago, Stranger on a Train, about her time travelling around the US. Her account of the friendships she formed while she was on the trains was romantic and compelling. I can see I am going to talk myself into planning a world train tour with Dylan soon 🙂


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