Turning Children’s Focus Into Fun at the Transit Museum

By Jim Dwyer


A few minutes late, Logan, 7, charges down a long hallway at the city’s Transit Museum and practically dives onto the floor of a classroom.

“Logan!” hollers Connor, 6.

He and two other boys, Dylan and Alex, both 8, holler and clap greetings. But they give Logan no more than a fleeting glance. All four have autism spectrum disorder, and do not practice ordinary social conventions, like direct eye contact.

Still, they know a fellow traveler.

For years, the Transit Museum has been a destination for families of children who have autism, drawn to its fleet of vintage, restored trains parked in the decommissioned station in Downtown Brooklyn that is the museum’s home. There are also ancient turnstiles and ticket chopping machines, old signals and undercarriages, even shells of buses.

Seeing the children’s fascination with the trains, a former museum official, Marcia Ely, began to shape a formal after-school program for children with autism, consulting with experts. Six years later, small groups of “Subway Sleuths” meet three times a week in the museum when it is closed to other visitors. The Sleuths program was honored last month by Michelle Obama at the White House.

At last Wednesday’s session, a museum educator, Meredith Gregory, hid in one of the old cars. Over a walkie-talkie, each Sleuth asked about the hiding place: what color, how old, the number of doors and kinds of handles. When the clues led to the right car, they played “swap the seat” — watching the face of a child across the aisle for a cue, then hopping up and changing places.

Using BVE Station, a (brilliant) simulator computer program created by volunteers, the Sleuths drove trains across the city. A joystick served as a throttle.

The city subways are layers of systems — mechanical, geographic and time — that satisfy a craving for order common among people with autism, said Elyse Newman, the museum’s education manager.

No human brain works exactly like any other. People with autism, generally, have trouble with standard communication. Lights, noise, touches can be acutely distressing, said Regina Asborno, the deputy director of the museum. Many turn to rigorous routines, obsessive interests or repetitive behaviors — for instance, twisting fingers in an exact pattern, or running fists along the side of the head over and over. These are thought to be mechanisms that mute sensory overloads.


James Sorbello, 8, of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, became absorbed in trains through YouTube videos.

“He has an unbelievable memory — he memorizes the vintage maps, and he knows what years the changes were made in the lines,” said his mother, Sharon Matechick. “Sleuths was made for him, a perfect place for him to open up.”

He asked two strangers their birthdays, and immediately named the days of the week they will fall next year.

At a year and half, Jamari Burns “was lining up toy trains, putting the caboose at the end,” his mother, Erin Burns, said. “Friends of mine call up, they say, can you ask Jamari how to get to such and such a place. He’ll give alternate routes.”

Jamari, 14, and his brother Jamaire, 11, of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, have both gone through the Sleuths. Their mother hopes that their 3-year-old sister, ZariyahMcMurren, will join in a few years. “It’s about them being with peers,” Ms. Burns said. “The boys are here for the trains. She loves buses. Her favorite is the B61.”

At the museum, Zariyah sat in a bus driver’s seat and spun the steering wheel around and around.


The museum’s obvious glories are its narrative displays on the city’s history, and chances to touch a vanished world, to sit on wicker seats in a 1907 car and read the ads for Rinso detergent. But there are others.


In the simulation room, Dylan planted his chair far from his computer. The other boys were on their screens, shouting out speeds or opening the doors when they came to a station. Seeing Dylan hanging back, Christina Annunziata, one of the teachers, pulled her chair up to his simulator.

He watched.

A minute or so later, he rolled a few inches closer.

Ms. Annunziata edged away. Gradually, Dylan took up the throttle.

With that, he was off.

He drove his train until it burst from a tunnel and climbed the grade up the Manhattan Bridge, the rails on the screen crisp and gray under a deep blue sky.

Dylan turned to the other boys.

“I’m outside,” he yelled, and so he was.


Culled from The New York Times

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