“Can we take the A train to 168th and then switch to the B?”
These are the first words my 5-year-old autistic son utters when he wakes up in the morning, before even a yawn or a stretch.
It wasn’t always trains. He went through a lengthy “Chutes and Ladders” phase, then it was nonstop bicycles. There have been so many other pseudo-obsessions that I can’t recall right now because when they were finally over, I enthusiastically purged them from my mind and savored the opportunity never to speak about them again.
For better or worse, my husband and I know all too well how we’re supposed to deal with this. Because my son was diagnosed at 18 months, we’ve had years to become experts at responding to his repetitive comments therapeutically. We can try to redirect him (what’ll we do AFTER the train?), we can time-limit him (two more minutes to talk about trains, then on to something else), or we can get out his train set and work on his imaginary play skills because that’s another area of delay for him.
The problem is, it’s 6:30 in the morning. I don’t want to be a good mom right now—I just want a cup of coffee. And even if I did have the energy to make an effort, I would have to first turn down the volume on the ever-present loop that plays inside my head: “He’ll never be able to make friends because he’ll never be able to stop talking about trains.” Even though I’m a “glass-half-full” kind of person — I believe he will eventually get beyond all this, I know how far he’s come, I see more and more spontaneous parts of him come alive every day — there is, always, a strong and steady heartbeat of worry.
Simultaneously, I am fascinated with my son’s fascination. However worrisome it is to me, he clearly experiences it as pure joy. Autistic savant Daniel Tamet’s Born on a Blue Day describes seeing numbers in his head not just mathematically like the rest of us, but rather as landscapes: beautiful, engaging, passionate visions. Are we missing something spectacular about the A train?
Eventually, I say: “Okay, buddy, we can take the train.” Which invariably leads to: “The A train? Can we take the A train, Mommy? And then we can switch to the B?” I add this to my long list of issues to discuss with his PS 178 ASD Nest teachers at our upcoming team meeting, and I decide that for the moment, I will concentrate on an area where my son has no delays whatsoever: I give my delicious little boy a big squeezy hug and tickle him until he giggles.