Why Are Trains Great For Autistic Children?
People of all ages love trains but they are an especially popular topic for autistic children. There are tonnes of theories about why autistic kids are thrilled by trains, so let’s explore why this might be and how train play can help.
Is There A Connection Between Autism And Trains?
Some theories around why autistic children love trains so much are:
One theory why toy trains are a hit with autistic kids is the attraction of spinning wheels. Developmental Paediatrician, Dr Amanda Bennett, says that train wheels appeal to autistic children who love spinning objects. Toddlers who are preoccupied with spinning and rotating toys often have an increased risk of developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Another theory is that trains are categorised into different sizes, types and models. For an autistic child, lining up objects gives a sense of structure and order. Kids can spend hours lining up their favourite toy trains in colour, size, model and shape order.
Trains also run on a track and can only go in two directions; they are organised and line up neatly. Our Bigjigs Rail engines feature magnetic couplings that easily connect and can be lined up, stacked and linked together in many ways. Organising their train fleet can help soothe and calm children down.
Real-life trains run on predictable schedules, which helps meet an autistic child’s need for predictability and routine. Kids on the spectrum tend to love memorising complex train timetables, maps and routes, so having their own train set can help them role-play and act out their own routes and memorised information.
Rhythm and Sounds
Trains have their own rhythm: they arrive, depart, stop, and go - over and over again. The rhythm of trains can be really relaxing for neurodiverse children. There are of course the sounds that come with trains, too: the clickity-clack of the wheels on the track, the choo-choos, and the whistles from the guards.
Trains also have other features that develop lifelong interests. For example, children on the spectrum are drawn to train characters such as Thomas The Tank Engine. A 2007 study even discovered that from reading Thomas The Tank Engine stories, kids were able to differentiate between the different emotions, colours, numbers and words.
How Does Bigjigs Rail Help?
One of our lovely customers reached out to us to share her delight in seeing her non-verbal autistic son, Nye, come to life with his Bigjigs Rail trains. We chatted with Lauren Brolly to find out more.
Tell Us About Your Family And Autism Journey So Far
In October 2021 our son, Aneurin (aka Nye) was diagnosed as having “severe autism requiring very substantial support”. Autism is an extremely vast spectrum made up of three key components - communication, social and repetitive and restrictive behaviours.
The diagnosis was based on him being non-verbal, unable to make eye contact, having a desire to spin repeatedly, and being very developmentally behind the expected age level. After having his EHCP (educational health and care plan) accepted in June 2022, he is due to start a specialist school for children with autism. We’re looking forward to meeting more families like ours and having him feel just like everyone else.
Alongside his autism, Nye also has type 1 diabetes. Managing diabetes with non-verbal autism is a very tricky combination and adds another level to the care he needs to receive. He became very poorly and we spent six days in the hospital. The only toy he wanted to play with the entire time were his six green carriages from the Christmas Train and Dinosaur Train. They were his stand-out favourites before his hospital stay but now they go everywhere every waking minute of his day!
How Did You Notice The Early Signs Of Autism In Your Child?
Nye has an older sister, Arleigh, who is now 6. Arleigh was talking fluently and in sentences by the time she was 18 months old. I first flagged my concerns about Nye when he was around the same age as he was yet to say a single word, but was told he would be absolutely fine.
Nye got referred to the multi-disciplinary neurological department, but the waiting list was two years long. In those two years, the other main attributes of autism came to light: he wouldn’t make eye contact, did not engage in play with other children, loved to spin and make repetitive body motions, and his communication difficulties were becoming more evident. Nye eventually got diagnosed with “autism requiring very substantial support”.
What’s Your Best Advice For A Family Starting Their Autism Journey?
If I could offer anyone advice, it would be to take any help and as much support as you can. We also find being totally transparent about an ASD diagnosis is helpful - it creates a community of people around you who can understand, support and become more inclusive. We talk to anyone who will listen about Nye, and as a result, we have an army of people who can help us be his voice.
When it comes to being the parent or carer, it is so important that you take time for yourself too, even if it's something small. Also, nobody knows your child better than you; follow your instincts and don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion if you feel your worries aren’t alleviated.
How Has Bigjigs Rail Helped?
Nye has very little interest in toys apart from trains. Trains are his world. He has very specific Bigjigs Rail trains that he spends all day magnetising together in a very particular order. He plays independently with these wooden trains but it’s also a great way for others to enter his world and play with him.
I recently built him a train board made from a pallet I found; I laid the track design, painted the four areas (coastal, woodland, town & road) then glued it all together. I used his Bigjigs Rail accessories such as Railway Station, Level Crossing and Bridges and added new pieces like the 4-Way Lighthouse and Coastal Clean Up accessories which he truly loves.
Nye’s love of toy trains is linked to other parts of his life, too. He watches very specific snippets of cartoons or movies that have a train in them (for example, he loves to watch the Zootropolis scene where Judy Hops goes on the train for her new life) and often rewinds it back to watch it again and again. It is highly encouraging that he can make that connection and recognise trains in other areas.
What Are Your Best Train Toys For Autism?
Every child with autism has their own unique likes and dislikes but it's also very common for children with autism to like spinning wheels, watching things move, and repetitive patterns, so wooden train sets are a great choice.
Nye loves the magnetic train engines and working out which way the magnets have to face to attach. picking a pattern of carriage, and creating a track. Our stand-out favourite items are