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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