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Museum helps autistic children make connections through love of trains

The New York Transit Museum plays host to a unique program called "Subway Sleuths." All of the children participating in it are on autism spectrum. Researchers have long observed that many on the autism spectrum hold a particular interest in trains and transit systems.
The museum also offers the “Subway Sleuths” program online to children around the country, with some having logged on from as far away as Massachusetts and North Carolina. The museum has also advised other train museums around the country on how to start similar programs.
The 10-week "Subway Sleuths" program aims to help children with autism connect with each other over a shared passion for trains.
The New York Transit Museum is housed underground, in a former subway station beneath Brooklyn. The "Subway Sleuths" program for neurodivergent children takes place after school, among the numerous trains in the museum's collection.
Posted at 12:29 PM, Nov 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-28 13:29:26-05

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — It's after school and there may be no other place these children would rather be than among trains.

"We have over 100 years of rail history on the tracks and the museum proper,” said Concetta Bencivenga, director of the New York Transit Museum.

The museum is housed underground, in a former subway station beneath Brooklyn.

"We are actually sitting in a 1904 train car,” Bencivenga said. “It's a wooden-body train car. It's one of the most priceless pieces of our collection."

It is a collection that plays host to a unique program at the museum called "Subway Sleuths." All of the children participating in it are on the autism spectrum.

"The museum realized that this was part of their audience,” said Sara Thomson, the museum’s special education manager, “that they had train lovers coming to the transit museum and that a number of them were neurodivergent.”

In the U.S., that number is growing. According to the CDC, back in 2000, the number of children on the autism spectrum was 1 in 150. Now, it is 1 in 44.

Researchers have long observed that many on the autism spectrum hold a particular fascination with trains and transit systems.

"For us, it's very common to meet somebody who has a 6-year-old who has completely committed to memory the New York City subway map and we don't even blink,” Bencivenga said. “We say, 'Come on home. You're welcome here. This is the place for you.'"

So, the museum set out to create a program for neurodivergent children that leans into that.

"The museum worked with two autism specialists to really develop Subway Sleuths as it is today,” Thomson said, “and so those specialists work in special education, speech, language pathology and really bringing their expertise."

Dan Marwit's son, Frank, is a subway sleuth.

"Whoever thought of this program is a genius," he said.

The 10-week program aims to help children with autism connect with each other over a shared passion for trains.

"There's no substitute for going to a place and being with actual people," Marwit said.

Being with people is something that wasn't possible during the pandemic when isolation kept many children at home. It was especially hard for families with autistic children.

"To see the difference is phenomenal,” Marwit said. “It's remarkably different, as I'm sure anyone can imagine and any parent has experienced over the transition, from pandemic back into 'less pandemic' times."

Still, the museum also offers the Subway Sleuths program online to children around the country, with some having logged on from as far away as Massachusetts and North Carolina. The museum has also advised other train museums around the country on how to start similar programs.

Meanwhile, among the trains at the New York Transit Museum, friendships are made.

"That is exactly what we hope is happening,” Thomson said. “We love to see the relationships develop. And what we really love to hear is, after their semester is over, that they're still in touch with each other."

That means so much to parents, like Dan Marwit, as he sees how his son joins in.

“He not only participates here but often invites other kids to play. You know: 'Let's get started! Come on, everybody, let's go!'” he said. “I think he has a sense of ownership here."