Train spotlight: Puffing Billy Railway

“Stand clear of the closing…oh never mind”
Image source: Wikimedia

In most parts of the world, it is expected that when riding the rails, one should keep their hands and arms inside the vehicle at all times. Riding on the outside of a railway carriage is generally discouraged, if not illegal. It is often very dangerous due to the risk of falling from a moving train as well as other hazards along the track, such as low tunnels, signal gantries, and high-voltage overhead line equipment. Yet people will still do so, for various reasons. It may be due to overcrowding, or it may stem from the desire to get some fresh air or to avoid having to pay a fare. Unfortunately, it also used as a way to get video views.

There are, however, some railway systems where this is not only allowed, but also expected. A classic example is the San Fransisco Cable Car, where passengers are allowed to cling on to the outside of the vehicle as it makes its ways through the city’s hilly terrain, but there is another railway that also allows, at least to an extent. For the Puffing Billy Railway, outside of Melbourne, Australia, keeping hands and arms inside the vehicle is optional, and the same goes for legs too.

12A ready for departure
Image source: Wikimedia

Within walking distance of Belgrave Station at the end of the Belgrave Line on Melbourne’s electrified 1600mm broad-gauge suburban network is a portal to another era where a journey on the Puffing Billy Railway begins. A stark contrast to the modern electrical multiple units on the suburban network, the trains here run on old-fashioned steam. Run and maintained by mostly volunteers, it attracts tourists from near and far, and in 1990s when my family lived in the area, we were among those tourists. We arrived fairly early, allowing us to witness our train chugging into the station consisting of a maroon 2-6-2 tank locomotive running cab-first pulling a rake of open-sided wooden coaches. The windows had nothing but metal railing, presumably to prevent people from jumping out, but we later realized they served an additional purpose.

Crossing the Monbulk trestle bridge can be a white-knuckle experience for the faint of heart.
Image source: Wikimedia

We climbed aboard and found our seats in the second car. Fittings were fairly minimal, including lights, which were not used because this ride was during the day. I later see and hear our locomotive run by us in the siding as it ran around to the other end of the train. A few moments later, we were on our way. The railway itself is a single-track 782mm (2ft 6in) narrow gauge line (this means the spacing between the track is less than half that of Melbourne’s main network) that winds its way through the wooded foothills of the Dandenong Ranges. Once one of five narrow gauge lines of the Victorian Railways, it is the only one that remains, having been reopened in 1962 after the original line was shut down. Along the way we get to take in much of the scenery of the line, including a narrow and very rickety-looking trestle bridge. It is during this journey that we discover the other unique aspect of the Puffing Billy Railway, and that is the tradition of people, especially children, sitting on the edges of the windows, letting their legs dangle freely, with the metal bars preventing them from falling out.

I was a bit nervous about sitting on the edge of the window, but my brother was able to do it for a while – I just preferred to watch the scenery from the safety of my seat. At the time, the end of the line was at Lakeside station, 14km from Belgrave. I wanted to get off and look around, but since our train was the last train of the day, we had to stay on board as our locomotive ran around to the back of the train ready for the return trip and if we were to alight, we would have to find another way back. With the locomotive at the other end of the train, I was able to get a better view of it as it huffed and puffed its way back to Belgrave.

Although I was only ten when we took that ride, it is one that I fondly remember, and even today, the Puffing Billy locomotives carries thousands of passengers on a daily basis along what is now a 25km line.

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Luka: Neurodiverse, not abused?

“I guess I’d like to be alone, with nothing broken, nothing thown”
Image source: Wikimedia

“My name is Luka. I live on the second floor. I live upstairs from you. Yes I think you’ve seen me before”. Those are the opening words to Suzanne Vega’s hit song, Luka, first released in 1987 on her album, Solitude Standing. The song reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 Worldwide, and made the charts in countries worldwide, even in my home country of New Zealand.

Despite its apparently upbeat melody and popularity, the song itself is actually about a very sensitive topic – child abuse. The character Luka talks about being “hit until he cries”, and keeps things to himself, most likely out of fear of being exposed to more abuse, as well as wanting to be alone.

Now although I was bullied a lot in school and still suffer from the scars of that as an adult, I at least had a safe and loving home to go to after school (unless you count the “forced eye contact” therapy they tried on me and even that in itself was not entirely traumatizing because at least I got to play with the train when the ordeal was over), but something that is very interesting about the song that Suzanne Vega herself has to say that I could relate to:

A few years ago, I used to see this group of children playing in front of my building, and there was one of them, whose name was Luka, who seemed a little bit distinctive from the other children. I always remembered his name, and I always remembered his face, and I didn’t know much about him, but he just seemed set apart from these other children that I would see playing. And his character is what I based the song ‘Luka’ on. In the song, the boy Luka is an abused child – In real life I don’t think he was. I think he was just different.

-Suzanne Vega in an interview for SongFacts
New York City and its people provided the inspiration and setting for Luka

Those last few words struck me – Vega herself says that Luka was based on a kid who probably was not abused – he was in fact “just different” and in a another interview, he was apparently doing okay for himself and even got himself a girl. Just as many people on the spectrum are “just different”. As neurodiverse kids, we often struggled to fit in with the other kids and their games and often ended up playing on our own. Perhaps Luka was in fact on the spectrum to some extent, and Vega just interpreted his mannerisms as being the result of horrible things happening behind closed doors.

That is not to say, however, that kids (and even adults) on the spectrum do not get abused. Just like neurotypical kids, they are still kids, and if born into a dysfunctional household, they may suffer from similar treatment, perhaps even more so due to them being more vulnerable and misunderstood, along with their increased sensitivity to certain stimuli. Then there’s the issue of school bullying, and that is a story in itself.

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Childhood Trauma: Sports and Gym Class

Do you remember your favorite subjects in school? Some might like art, others music. The nerdier kids might enjoy science or computer class, yet for many kids, especially young boys, their favorite school activities were anything related to sports. One might think that it’s common for people on the spectrum to be interested in sports, at least when it comes to knowing everything there is to know about them, whether it is a particular sport, such as baseball where every player has a set of stats, a family of sports, such as football (soccer, American football, rugby, Aussie rules, etc.), or a wide range of sports. I, however, am not one of these people. School actually taught me to hate sports.

An empty school gymnasium with a basketball hoop suspended in front of a stage.
The school gymnasium was the place to go for exclusion, confusion, and terrible acoustics. Image source: Wikimedia

At many schools, sports divide the kids into two groups: those who were really good at sports, competed with other schools, and enjoyed every moment of it and those who were not so good at sports, but get satisfaction out of playing. Where was I? I was in the third group: kids who were terrible at all things sports and hated every moment of it.

I was not a fast runner and having less than perfect binocular vision meant that I was more likely to get hit in the head by a fast ball than be able to catch it. There were also a lot of games that I did not play because I did not know how to play them and I did not have friends who could teach me. Instead of being out on the field playing cricket or in the playground playing tag with the other kids, I spent many lunch breaks by myself in the sandbox digging holes and building sandcastles, sometimes with the other outcast” kids.

This had all set in by the time I reached Std. 2 (roughly equivalent to 3rd grade in the US school system), physical fitness had become a regular part of each day – at the beginning of every day we were require to take off our warm jackets go outside into the chilly morning weather and run laps around the school grounds. It was as if the teachers got some sort of sick pleasure standing there in their nice warm clothes, watching us students suffer as we did lap after lap. Sometimes when they got fed up with the class’s behaviour, they would even send everyone out to run laps as a punishment. Just as high school English class ruined books by taking the fun out of reading (how was I supposed to know why the curtains were blue?), primary school fitness taught me to loathe running. They didn’t teach much about the health benefits of being physically active – only the pain and suffering part.

In the afternoons we would regularly go out for PE – usually this involved “sport” sports – cricket, T-ball, etc. and other times it was just athletics – relays, long jump, running races, etc. When it came to playing T-ball, I was often out by the time I made it to second base (assuming I was even able to hit the ball), and for the running races, I usually came in last. The teachers did not seem to care and I just came to accept that I was terrible at sports – being the “different” and therefore “uncool” kid anyway, getting picked last for everything was expected.

There was a bright spot, however – every year, the school held its cross country race, which involved an approximately 1.7 km (about one mile) course around the block and school grounds. Initially, I dreaded it because it meant even more running, but my parents offered me a few dollars if finished the race, and a few more dollars if I didn’t come last. This was a tall order for someone like me, but the promise of money motivated me. On the day of the race, I ran, and ran, and ran I was out of breath and sore, but I finished. Not only that, but I finished in ninth place (out of the fifteen boys in my class), and for me that was a win – plus I got five dollars out of it. I certainly did not start enjoying running, but at least it was over.

A running track
Give me train tracks over running tracks any day! Image source: Wikimedia

I went to middle school in the US, and in seventh grade, I had PE as one of my courses. Naturally it was my least favourite subject (behind even English class). The pain and suffering would start when the coach blew his whistle in the locker room (those hard surfaces made for less than pleasant acoustics) and like in primary school, there was lots of running, but with some flag football thrown in (also a game I never actually learned how to play, so I just usually stood around on the field playing with some leaves or watching an interesting looking bug I found in the grass). Getting points docked off my grade due to not being able to run fast enough did not help either. Fortunately at the beginning of the second semester, the coach took notice at my complete lack of interest in a game of dodgeball (something all the other kids were looking forward to) and sent me to the guidance office, where they transferred me to home economics where I instead got to partake in more interesting topics, such as cooking and especially home design.

While in middle school, I also joined a Saturday morning bowling league as my brothers were also doing it and while I was never as good at the sport as they were, I was not terrible either and even improved over the years, but my performance was often related to my mental state. I could be on a roll, getting a bunch of strikes in a row and then getting a gutter-ball. The resulting anxiety would create a circular anxiety feedback loop and resulted in me bowling terribly for the rest of the game. Team-mates deliberately bowling poorly and unsolicited “advice” from family members did not help much either.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) in Melbourne, Australia. A rail yard is visible in the foreground
The MCG is a mecca for Aussie Rules footy fans. The best part of going to a game there as a neurodiverse person? Getting to ride the rare 4D train (running coupled behind a Comeng set) to get there. Image source: Wikimedia

While I did hate playing most sports, I actually got some enjoyment from watching sports, at least sometimes. Not on TV, but actually in a stadium with the crowds and noise. This is obviously something that would not normally appeal to people on the spectrum but I did have my limits. I went to a university known for one of the loudest NCAA stadiums in the country and knew it was not for me. We did go to rugby, ice hockey, and even Aussie Rules football games (we lived in Melbourne for about a year). The game itself I generally did not care much for – it was often difficult to follow (especially games with complex rules like American football), but I enjoyed the experience – going to the stadium, dressing in team colors, waving flags, etc.

Cyclists rolling out at the beginning of an organized tour
I want to ride it where I like…

After I finished school, I started cycling more – not so much for exercise, but out of necessity. I did not have my license (and therefore a car), but still needed to get around. I took this one step further when I realized that riding my bike was often quicker than taking the bus to get around town. Cycling was a sport that I was actually decent at, and when it came to just riding – it was less about winning or losing and just getting out and taking in the scenery at your own pace. I was not the fastest cyclist, but I completed several organized century rides (rides of at least 100 miles, or roughly 160 km).

To this day I still cycle fairly often, but since I have a car now it is no longer my only option for day-to-day transportation. The rest of my exercise needs are taken up by walking, which has numerous benefits – it is easier on the knees than running and can be done pretty much anywhere and at any time. I do wonder, however, how different life might have been if school sports was a little more friendlier to those on the spectrum.

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Childhood Memories: Everything is Awesome!

Many of us had favourite toys growing up – it might be soft toys, action figures, dolls, or building blocks. Being on the spectrum, I was no different and had several toys that I loved. Some of these were even toys that I could truly call my own, like some of the stuffed animals, however as a middle child, for most of my toys sharing was not an option – it was required.

Duplo vehicles on original 1980s era "black" train track, including a dog driving a tractor and another figure driving a small van
This is called a “push-pull” configuration train. It’s fine for the dog to drive, because he’s a good boy, but OSHA might have issue with the tractor not having sufficient roll bars.

Something my brothers and I spent a lot of time with as Duplo. A product of the Lego company, Duplo blocks were brightly coloured and locked together just like Lego did (in fact, they were even compatible with one-another), but were large enough to not pose a choking hazard. We had several sets, including a school (2645), delivery trucks (2632), and a gas station (2639). Most prized of all, of course, was the train (2700). The 1980s were primitive times and this little train with its two hopper cars ran on muscle power alone (they introduced a battery powered locomotive in the 1990s), but I spent many hours pushing it around that small circular track, especially when the brothers weren’t around.

The school bus and fire truck could run on the train track too, as did the delivery trucks (though the latter did not fit so well through the curved track pieces). Duplo provided an outlet for creativity and role play, and despite being something not always seen among those on the spectrum, it allowed for my brothers and I to engage in pretend-play. As a bonus (for my mother), it draw my attention away from the other fun looking “toys” found around the house, such as the washing machine, electrical sockets, and Dad’s toolbox.

As my brothers and I got older, we graduated to Lego, though we did still enjoy our Duplo, and regularly played with both. We also had plenty of sets, such as the King’s Castle (6080) and the Holiday House (6374), and I loved to build houses of my own design. My cousin even had a 12v Lego train and I loved to spend time with him and the sets that he had.

Interior view of a Lego Store
We did not have the Lego Store near us growing up, but we did have Toys R Us, and it came pretty close.
Image source: Wikimedia

Around the time (and much to my parent’s dismay) my brothers and I discovered the Lego catalog. Often available at the toy store for just fifty cents, this little book let us look at all the sets we had collected, and most importantly, the sets we wanted. Sets that were new that year were marked with a little yellow star, and if we were really good, there was the chance that Santa might leave something for my brothers and I under the tree, as was the case with the pirate ship (6285). A few years later, after helping my cousin get his Lego train running again, I saved up to get a Lego train of my own, the famed Metroliner (4558)

Of course, playing with Lego also meant having to play nicely with the brothers. As to be expected with most sibling relationships, fights did break out, and you knew you were in very deep trouble when the Lego was taken away. Few punishments were worse.

As I got older, I did not play with Lego as much, though my brothers and I would still take it out every once in a while. While a few pieces may have been lost over the years (such as on days when it’s time to vacuum and we did not tidy up well enough) I still have much of our collection in storage. Some of it might even have good resale value due to the vintage, though unfortunately most of the packaging and instruction manuals have long since gone and many of the gray, blue, and white pieces could use some retrobrighting. In fact, some studies have even suggested the Lego is a better investment than the stock market.

Street scene depicting sets from the Lego Modular Buildings series including a police station and jazz club. Various figures are present in front, including horses, police officers, a shark on a motorcycle, and a barbershop quartet.
The minifigures and animals from my childhood sets fit right in with this scene featuring the modern modular building series

But is Lego best as an investment, or as its original purpose: something to actually play with? If I were to ever have kids (something that does not come easy to neurodiverse people who often struggle to even land a first date), it is something I would want to share with them, and it is also perfectly acceptable for adults to play with Lego. AFOLs or “Adult Fan(s) of Lego” are self-identified individuals who like to collect and build Lego and there are numerous communities out there dedicated to the hobby, whether it be for nostalgia or just general enjoyment and therapeutic value – this may involve conventions, competitions, and even cosplay. The Lego company has even created sets that cater to adults (and their budgets now that many of them are old enough to have their own jobs).

“Lego therapy” is something that has been suggested for neurodiverse children as a method to develop collaboration and communication skills, because when it comes to collaborating using Lego, Everything Is Awesome…until you get into an argument and it gets taken away!

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Train Spotlight: Leap Frog Railway

In the old days of railways, the risk of collisions was a very real thing. Steam locomotives, with their boilers filled with high-pressure steam could – and did – explode if they ran into something, and even without a boiler explosion, their high mass and momentum meant that crashes were significantly more violent and forceful than a typical automobile collision.

Photo taken at Crash at Crush with the two locomotives just about to collide
The aptly named “Crash at Crush” was actually a deliberate head-on collision between two steam locomotives. The resulting boiler explosions injured many of the spectators, including the photographer.

Before the advent of modern block systems and signalling, there were several methods to reduce the chance of collisions. Lines with a lot of traffic in both directions benefited from double-tracking, allowing each track to carry traffic in a single direction, though even that carried the risk of rear-end collisions in the event of a slower or completely stopped train. What if there was a solution that prevented all collisions, whether head on or read-end?

Flash back to turn of the 20th century Coney Island. Today it is a sea-side amusement destination for New Yorkers with both classic and modern rides, including the famous 1927 Cyclone roller coaster, however back then it was even more so, with large and majestic amusement parks, such as the original Luna Park and Steeplechase Park, that showcased the latest in the technology of the era. The first working escalator, innovative (and often dangerous) amusement rides, electric lights, baby incubators, and a new type of food known as the “hot dog” were showcased for the world to see. In 1904, Dreamland opened. Built to replicate the success of Luna Park, Dreamland actually copied many of its attractions and took them to eleven. If Luna Park was lit up with 250,000 electric lights, then Dreamland was going to light itself with a million lights. If Luna Park had one Shoot the Chutes ride, Dreamland was going to have two. Apparently patent and trademark laws weren’t as much of a thing back then.

Image of Leap Frog Railway cars with one car climbing the other
We’re going off the rails on top of this crazy train

One of the novelties exhibited at Dreamland was the Leap-Frog Railway. Built on a pier stretching out into the Atlantic, this attraction consisted with a single stretch of track with two specially designed tank-like railcars that would literally go off the rails. Resembling something I would draw (or construct out of LEGO) as a kid, each railcar had an attached piece of track with ramps so that as the other car approached it, it would ride up onto this piece of track and travel over the top. Once the car reached the end of the track, it would change direction and allow passengers in the other car to experience what they had just been through.

Of course, back then, safety standards were a far cry from what they are today, and like many of the other attractions at Coney Island during its heyday, it had questionable safety qualities, and although people were not as likely to sue as they would today, this ride was allegedly shut down because of these questionable safety qualities. Dreamland itself closed several years later in 1911 having suffered the same fate as many Coney Island attractions of the time – it completely burned to the ground. Today the New York Aquarium sits on the site. Luna Park also partially burned down, but much later, in 1944, when it too closed.

Could this technology have been developed further, assuming they could work out the safety concerns? Personally, I do not think this would be likely, for multiple reasons. One of course is the maintenance issues associated with such a system and the complexity of implementing it on anything other than straight track. Speed would also be an issue – some trains today can go at several hundreds of kilometers an hour (at least in some parts of the world), and implementing such a system at high speeds would require extremely long “ramps” on each rail vehicle to avoid sudden jerking forces on the passengers (plus luggage, food, and anything else on board) as it traverses what is essentially a giant speed bump. Along with the increased height of the stacked vehicles, having the extra rails in the center of the vehicle also meant that the passenger compartments were located at the sides of the vehicle, requiring a much larger loading gauge, both laterally and vertically. Today with modern signalling and warning systems, as well as radio communication, rail collisions are very unlikely, and most collisions between two trains are often the result of human error, just as a car crash can be caused by a motorist running a red light.

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Childhood Special Interests: “I want to be an architect”

Growing up, my family moved around a lot. Within a few months of coming home from the hospital, my family moved. During my first year of school, my family moved…and moved…and moved. By the time I had reached high school, we had moved eight times, sometimes across town, sometimes across the country, and sometimes overseas. Most of these moves also meant changing schools and trying to make new friends, something that is extremely difficult for someone on the spectrum, and this sometimes happened as often as once every year.

With all these moves we made, my family did a lot of house-hunting and we dreamed of the day we would have a permanent house. This meant many visits to real-estate agent offices, touring different houses, and determining whether a particular house would fit my family’s needs. Having plenty of bedrooms was essential, and lots of yard space was also desirable. A room with hardwood floors was good for spreading out LEGO and a good set of bushes in the back yard made the ideal framework for constructing a fort impenetrable to enemy forces, whether it be aliens, zombies, or older siblings

E-3000 floor plan in Expert Software's Home Design, a 1990s house design software package
One of the floor plans included with Expert Software Home Design that I had determined would be well-suited for my family. It just needs a pool and perhaps to be within walking distance to a train station.

I often came along on these “house hunts” and something that captivated me at this age was floor plans – every house had a different plan and the floor plan told everything we needed to know about the house. When my family was living in Melbourne in the early 1990s, we put down an offer on what was to be our dream house – it had everything – a large pool, plenty of bedrooms, a game room, and was a short distance away from the famed Puffing Billy Railway. I spent many hours gazing at the floor plan for this particular house and really wanted to live there, even if I had yet to see the house in person. Unfortunately the offer fell through and the hunt continued. We considered an alternative option – just buy some land and build a house, possibly to our own design.

I figured that I could be the one to design the house. Sure, I was ten years old, but I knew what I was doing, at least in my eyes – when I was five I drew a picture of our house on the computer, and that drawing became my family’s letterhead – even if it did not look much like the house – so with twice as many years of experience, I could do something amazing. Initially I would draw floorplans on paper, but later on I took advantage of what the computer had to offer. My CAD tool of choice? Microsoft Paintbrush. Some of you may be too young to know what Paintbrush was, but this was the Windows 3.x predecessor to MS Paint, which first came with Windows 95.

Later on I moved to dedicated architecture software, such as Designware’s myHouse and Expert Software’s Home Design, and for a school project, I used my family’s new Packard Bell 486 to design a house that we would build if we were to win the lottery. It was to have all the features my family wanted, such as individual bedroom for each of my brothers to have our own, a fenced in area for the dogs to run loose, and a large swimming pool for those sunny summer days. As expected, my family did not win the lottery, and in hindsight, that might have been for the better, the design of the house was very impractical – it was a very boxy design spread out over five different floors without any provision for an elevator, and it took several hours for the computer to render a single exterior view. I sometimes wonder whether it was my house renderings or Dad’s football game that caused that machine to die a year later (though it was a Packard Bell, so it may have been neither).

Screenshot of one of my house designs in classic Doom from when I was in middle school
A different kind of “house hunting”. If you don’t mind the cacodemons raiding the kitchen, the imps hiding in the closet, and the bathroom looking (and smelling) like something died in there, it’s actually quite a spacious design.

After several more moves, and finally settling down in a condo of all places, like other special interests I had in childhood, this interest in architecture waned, but it still stuck around to some extent. I later designed levels for Doom – including a few houses, though the map quality was to be expected for a 12-year old who perhaps should not have been playing Doom. I also bought the original The Sims when it came out, and that allowed for designing a house for virtual people to live in (however unlike many players, I usually made sure to build the swimming pools with ladders). It was also a good learning tool, as it can teach the consequences of putting the bathrooms too far away from where people are likely to gather.

I went on to pursue a degree in engineering rather than architecture, and this special interest has long since faded. I do now have a place of my own now, but digging up and running the old design software gives a healthy hit of nostalgia, and from time to time, I still surf Zillow looking at future houses I could be living in if I were to move again.

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I’m an excellent driver…sometimes I drive fast on the highway

Driving is something that most people generally take for granted. Getting to the store, to work, or to a friend’s place usually requires driving, at least in much of the United States. Public transport is often lacking compared to places like Europe and Asia, and while walking or biking is a healthy alternative, it may takes too long or the infrastructure is not present, which leaves going by car as the only option.

For the neurodiverse, driving is not always an option. For various reasons, they may be unable to get their license or simply not want to drive. They may sit the written test and pass with flying colors, yet never make it past the practical road test.

Road sign depicting a 4-4-0 steam locomotive. In many countries this symbol is used to indicate a railway crossing, an example of skeuomorph design as steam locomotives are relatively rare these days.
Does this mean that this road is regularly crossed by 4-4-0 steam locomotives? Can’t we just take the train instead?

These reasons may include sensory issues, anxiety, or just difficulties handling the task of driving. One such challenge is the act of “driving by the book” and the act of “driving like a neurotypical”, both of which are quite different. We have traffic laws to prevent people from getting into accidents, but for the often highly logical neurodiverse brain, they may interpret the law differently compared to neurotypicals. Take for example a sign on the highway: “Speed limit 60”. A neurodiverse person is more likely to interpret that as “Do not go faster than 60”, but what does everyone do? Certainly not less than 60. Maybe in the slow lane, but most people will be probably doing at least 65 and some even 70. That “No turn on red” sign (in the United States it is legal to turn right at a red light if safe to do so in most jurisdictions). I’ve even seen police officers make a right turn on red in the presence of such a sign. They often don’t even stop like it says to do in the driver’s handbook, yet if a neurodiverse driver were to drive like this, they will most likely end up getting pulled over because they didn’t realize there was a officer in the other lane.

Northbound on I-75 near Gainesville, Florida
Northbound on I-75 in Florida, where despite what the signs say, 70mph is the bare minimum, not the maximum
Image source: Wikimedia

This same neurodiverse driver is also likely to have a mental breakdown because while they are driving at the speed limit, the neurotypical driver behind them is catching up and leaning on the horn, which in itself is triggering. No wonder so many people on the spectrum do not drive.

Driving is already mentally demanding as it is – it requires focus and concentration (which does mean putting away the cell phone) and may require split-second decision-making. When the light turns amber, do you slow down and risk getting rear-ended or not stopping in time, or do you floor it and risk entering the intersection when the light turns red? What about when a ambulance comes screaming up behind you and you need to make a quick lane change to allow it to pass?

When I learned to drive, something that was particularly stressful to me was when receiving conflicting information, such as a traffic light and an officer in the intersection directing traffic, or when the person instructing me would tell me to perform an unfamiliar maneuver in the middle of an intersection that was not taught in the book. Cue mental meltdown behind the wheel.

There’s also the social aspect of driving – this means understanding that other motorists are doing and predicting what they are doing next. People don’t always use their turn signals , and then there’s the special case of (at least in the United States), the four-way stop-sign. Other drivers may also have issues of their own – road rage and impatient drivers can make things more stressful to a neurodiverse person behind the wheel.

Many neurodiverse individuals can – and do – drive. In fact many even drive for a living in the form of jobs like food delivery and ride-sharing. They are often safer than neurotypical drivers for the reasons mentioned above – they are less likely to speed and drive recklessly, and more likely to focus on the road. Sure, they might need to “stim and drive” on occasion, but compared to texting and driving, it’s fairly harmless, especially if it helps to reduce the stress and anxiety that may come with being on the road. It also is helpful (for the neurodiverse and neurotypicals alike) to know one’s limits when driving. I was once driving and nearly changed lanes without noticing someone in my blind spot. The other driver honks, I get stressed out (not just because of getting honked at, but also the thought of nearly having a collision), and immediately look for the nearest highway exit so I can safely pull over and let my friend do the driving for the rest of the trip.

Pictures of a bus interior
With gas prices these days, that bus fare doesn’t seem so expensive. Image source: Wikimedia

Compared to other transportation options, driving is not cheap – when factoring in costs such as fuel, insurance, loan payments, registration, etc. this can add up to thousands and thousands of dollars a year, and for those on the spectrum – especially those who are not able to obtain a well-paying job, it may make more financial sense to just not drive at all. Some are content with walking or taking the bus to get to where they need to go – and they will likely be able to tell you the difference between a Gillig Phantom and a Rapid Transit Series and why one might be better than the other. If they ride the same route often enough, they will probably know the fleet numbers of all the buses that run that route and the names of all the regular drivers too).

When my first car died, I did just that. Frustrated with the negotiating games the dealership played when trading it in for something new (my highly logical brain struggled with the idea that my old car was somehow worth more if I wanted to buy a more expensive model), I decided to instead donate it to a local charity and go “car-free” for a while, using a bicycle as my primary method of transport. I switched my insurance to a “non-owner” policy, which is cheaper than standard insurance and still provided continuous coverage if I drove someone else’s car. With the money I saved, I was able to put more money towards paying down my mortgage…and more video games.

Driving, by its very nature, is not the most autism-friendly activity out there, but with the right training, along with plenty of practice, many neurodiverse individuals can become excellent drivers. On the other hand, if neurodiverse people ran the world, driving would not be as necessary because we would just have more trains that take us to where we need to go instead.

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What is the autism spectrum anyway?

Most of us have probably heard of the condition and how it affects certain people, but it’s not always that simple. Yes there are the stereotypes, but they don’t apply to everyone in the same way. In the movie Rain Man, for example, the character Raymond, who is depicted as being on the spectrum, and has some super savant abilities, but severe social deficiencies.

Qantas 747-400 in flight. Qantas has famously never had a fatal jet crash and has never had a fatal crash since 1951. Image source: Wikimedia

In the movie, he has strict daily routines and has panic attacks when his routines are disrupted. He refuses to fly because every airline – except Qantas – has had a fatal jet crash and only wears underwear that is bought from Kmart. While it’s true that some people on the autism spectrum may have such mannerisms, many of us do not, and let’s face it – Kmarts are getting harder and harder to find these days (as of this writing, there are three left in the continental United States), but they do still exist and are even thriving in places like Australia and New Zealand, though owned by a different company – I can imagine that if Raymond was around today, he would be spending his family fortune on trips to Melbourne to buy underwear, racking up a large number of Qantas frequent flyer miles in the process. For me, Target is better. Definitely Target.

If affects people in so many different ways and with varying severities, which is why it is often called a spectrum. There are some people who you could never tell have the condition, and others who may struggle with activities that most people might take for granted. Some people on the spectrum may have savant abilities that allow them to memorize a phone book (provided that they can still find one in today’s day and age) or do complex mathematics in their head, but most do not. They will, however, often have superior skills in these areas. Some have unique musical talents, and others may have strong mathematical and problem solving skills. Some have developmental delays growing up (especially with speech and language), while other do not, and some may have impairments (such as facial recognition) that never fully resolve while others have issues that they will eventually grow out of, either with therapy or on their own.

There are many people out there who are famous for having the condition. Temple Grandin is perhaps one of the best known as a result of her work with livestock and promotion of humane animal treatment. There are also others who are suspected of being on the spectrum, notably Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison, but also people like Bill Gates

There’s also Kim Peek, who did not actually have the condition, but provided inspiration for Raymond in Rain Man – though he was not actually on the spectrum, he was still neurodiverse and it is believed he actually had FG syndrome, which resulted in his brain forming differently, just like with autism but quite a bit more severe.

Why “off the rails”?

What is the meaning behind “Off the rails”, and what does it have to do with the autism spectrum? Multiple things actually. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines going “off the rails” as “losing control and starting to behave in a way that is not normal or acceptable”, a concept that is all too familiar to many parents of children on the spectrum. Meltdowns and temper tantrums resulting from being overwhelmed or a sensory trigger. Sometimes, like Thomas the Tank Engine, we need our rails because that’s what we’re comfortable with, and it provides some predictability.

New Zealand EM class multiple unit at Wellington Station. Although no longer in service these days (having since been replaced by the FP class “Matangi” units), these trains were a big part of my childhood.
Image source: Wikimedia

Also, many us us (though not all) on the spectrum have a fascination for all things trains, whether it’s classic steam locomotives, heavy diesel trains, or modern electrical multiple units. It’s not quite fully understood why a lot of people on the spectrum are drawn to them, though there are many reasons such as the sight and sounds of watching trains come and go, their predictability, the way that a train and the track go together. Of course, Thomas the Tank Engine also likely had a big influence too, and even he went off the rails on multiple occasions.

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