Autistic boy, 4, says ‘Hi, Mr. Passenger,’ as SunRail conductor for a day
James Richart loves trains.
The 4-year-old Winter Park boy with autism often spends hours sitting on his living room floor linking toy tracks and pushing along the engine, cars and caboose. When he watches the real ones roll into a train station, he covers his ears as the engineer blows the whistle.
“Mama, look, a train!” the youngster screams over the loud noise while holding a toy train engine in his hand.
James — who like other children and adults with autism is fascinated by a train’s cars, motion and schedules — lived his dream Friday when SunRail gave him the chance to become a conductor on a 20-minute trip between the Winter Park and Lake Mary stations.
Wearing a blue conductor’s hat and a shirt reading “Honorary Conductor,” James walked up and down the aisle punching honorary tickets handed out to passengers by SunRail staff aboard the commuter train.
“Hi, Mr. Passenger,” he said. “The next stop is the Lake Mary station. Please watch your step.”
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions in which a person often has trouble with social interactions and communicating. An estimated one in 68 children in the U.S. has some form of autism. In Florida, more than 50,000 children have the disorder, including about 13,000 in seven counties in this region.
Some people with autism engage in repetitive behaviors. They also are attracted to predictable patterns and motions, such as trains with their moving wheels, rail cars and arriving at stations at certain times.
That’s why trains are seen as good therapy and in helping them socialize.
The New York Transit Museum, for example, created “Subway Sleuths” an after-school program for children with autism several years ago as a way for them to develop social skills. Each class is led by a special education teacher and speech language pathologist, and participants explore a subway station and learn about transit.
The museum started the program after officials noticed that scores of children and adults with autism would regularly crowd the facility to chat about schedules, trains and maps.
“We have seen it in people with autism, especially with boys, that they are fascinated by trains,” said Alycia Halladay, chief science officer of the Autism Science Foundation in New York City. “They stick to their schedules. The toy trains, you can take them apart and put them back together. And people with autism like to do that.”
Halladay said going to train stations and riding trains is a great way for a child with autism to engage socially with other people. She praised James’ parents for supporting his interest.
“This is a great way to foster engagement and make eye contact and say hello to people,” she said. “I think it’s great that they’re letting him go to stations and ride the train.”
Soon after James was diagnosed with autism at 2, he became fascinated by construction sites and large machinery. His father, Patrick Richart, 46, would take James nearly every day to watch the large dump trucks, cranes and backhoes.
But then last year, James took a liking to trains. Now, his parents reward his good behavior by letting him play with his toy trains, look at train images on his mom’s cell phone or laptop, or take him to the SunRail station about three times a week to watch the commuter train’s cars roll in.
“He used to have pretty bad tantrums,” Patrick Richart said. “But trains have helped quiet him down … He just loves being on the train and being around the people … It just soothes him.”
His mother, Cat Richart, 41, said the trains have helped her son make eye contact with other passengers.
“He is just so happy when he’s near a train,” she said.
Terri Daly, director of the center for autism and related disabilities at the University of Central Florida, said families of children with autism should nurture their special interests, whether it’s trains or something else. That will help build a bridge toward connecting with other people.
“It’s a good idea to focus on those interests with them,” she said. “Being in a model train club, for example.”
Carrie Proudfit — an Orange County spokeswoman and close friend of James’ mother — arranged for James’ special day with SunRail officials in December as a Christmas gift.
After James finished his duties as conductor and stepped off the train at the Winter Park station, he was greeted by Nicola Liquori, SunRail’s executive director, who congratulated him on a job well done.
“I would love for us to continue doing this” with other children, Liquori said.
Steve Olson, a spokesman for SunRail, said the commuter trains have also been used for weddings, baby showers and birthday parties with balloons and cakes.
On this day, James had a hand in getting passengers from Winter Park to Lake Mary in a train trip he likely always will remember.
“He is just so happy when he’s near a train,” Patrick Richart said. “And I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
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