Trains: How My Special Interest Became My Career | Organization for Autism Research

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Many children are born with two natural fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noise. For me, it all started at a railroad crossing. It was night: the sun had gone down and I was sitting between my mom and dad in the family car. We came to a stop and, all of a sudden, red lights were flashing and bells were ringing. Curious, I stood up on the bench seat – what a light and sound show! And, I could see a bright white light at a distance.

       Suddenly, a beautiful sort of music began coming from the same direction as the light. It was getting louder and brighter, and with a thundering clatter, the train crossed the road. It was scary and exciting at the same time, and it was music! The air horn on the locomotive was so perfectly tuned that with the harmonic swell and the engineer’s skill, it was literally music – and I loved it –  I was suddenly a train lover!

      Within minutes of getting home, I was dragging all of the shoes and slippers out of the closets and lining them up on the floor of that old trailer home. Mom and Dad were wondering, “what in the blazes is this kid doing?” One day, my aunt Valerie was sitting on the piano bench as I was once again dragging all of the shoes and slippers out of the closet. She had the right answer: “He’s making a train!” My reaction was instant. From that day forward, a passionate attraction to trains developed and would be with me for my entire life!

       From then on, whenever we were stopped at a railroad crossing, I would learn the names of all the railroads, the locomotive types, and every other thing that I could possibly wrap my head around. Mom and Dad were very liberal with the toy trains. One Christmas when I was five years old, my cousin got a Tyco precision engineered train set, and it was set up on a 4×8 sheet of plywood with sidings and buildings and scenery. I was heartbroken that I didn’t have the same thing. Mom and Dad stepped up, and next year for Christmas I got a Tyco precision engineered train set – I was in love. I would watch that train go ’round and ’round, and just like my cousin, I ended up with the railroad on a 4×8 sheet of plywood. Before you know it, I had a model railroad empire in my corner of the basement. Within weeks, I was learning electronics so that I could make automatic block signals, and I was learning art so that I could make beautiful scenery and back drops. As I got older, I started studying track geometry so that I could super-elevate the curves and design my track system on an even bigger layout. As I got older, the trains took a back burner to girls and friends. I stayed socially active even when I was in the Marine Corps. I had a very high General Technical Score that qualified me for the intelligence field. After discovering that I am dyslexic and was hearing Morse code backwards, they gave me my old job back as a combat engineer. I ended up in a very unique company with 8th Engineers on the East Coast. It was here that I became a bridge engineer. We built bridges for the infantry so that they could get across a river or a ravine or any kind of a hole in the ground that was in their way. It was fascinating to watch the M4T6 floating bridge handle a sixty-ton tank – mind blowing!

         After my experience with the military, I wanted to be a full-fledged locomotive engineer, but next to no one was hiring. One day, I found a small local short line railroad that was hiring, but their crews had to be Union Pacific Railroad Certified. I thought to myself, “wow, maybe I could get into UP locomotive engineers school.” To make a long story short, I was in school the next Monday. Little did I know that in three weeks, I would graduate 2nd in my class of eleven other conductors. Those other conductors were all being promoted to engineers with twelve to fifteen years of experience on the railroad, while I had none! I stayed with the railroad as long as I could until my old military injuries forced me out. Having tried so hard, I would become a disabled veteran to be awarded my P&T rating that would retire me for the rest of my life.

        My wife and I raised two kids; Savannah and Walker, who are all grown up and moved away. Three years ago, my daughter said during a phone conversation, “I think you may be autistic, Dad.” I knew that I marched to the beat of a different drummer, but autism? Come on! She said that the relationship between autism and trains was very well documented, and this sparked my interest, to say the least! So I checked it out and was amazed with what I was reading. Sure enough, I needed to be evaluated, and I was. What I discovered answered a thousand questions. It explained why I do the “crazy’ things I do.

       Rather than being all bummed out, I was quite the opposite. I was, and am, proud of who I became. I discovered that others who are in my boat are a lot like me. They like being who they are. We are the ones who are forever going against the grain, doing things differently, thinking outside the box. We are the ones who do the lateral thinking for the world, and we can be very proud! 

        I never once thought of myself as being “disabled.” Sure, there are things that I can’t do, but everyone is that way. Some people are musicians, some aren’t. Some people are mathematicians, some aren’t. That doesn’t mean that they are idiots! It simply means that their talents don’t lie in a certain area. I was also diagnosed as a savant. I have this wacky relationship with patterns, and how they progress. It is a wonderful wackiness because it allows me to “forecast.” The ability to forecast has kept me and my loved ones safe over the years, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

       So, as a final note to the parents who discover that their child “marches to the beat of a different drummer,” – don’t cry in your corn flakes!!! Autism is not the big bad cookie monster if it is handled correctly. Autism can open up some of the most beautiful avenues that you have ever walked down. Autistic people are not boring!
       And when it comes to trains, if a child continues to be enamored with them long after the other kids have tossed them aside, don’t restrict them. Feed their interest! Today I have a model railroad three levels tall with over 2000 feet of track and thousands of cars and locomotives. Trains can be the mechanism that opens the gateway allowing autistic children to learn. Learn about trains along with them! Learn as much about them as you can, and you will bless yourselves with fantastic relationships with your children who are autistic.

If they:

  • Stand up between Mom and Dad to watch a train go by,
  • Lug all of the shoes out of the closet to line them up,
  • Memorize the railroads by name,
  • Look at pictures of trains in books, and
  • Want to watch “Thomas the Tank Engine and Petticoat Junction” all of the time,

Then you might just have a child that will take you down the long wacky winding road called autism, and you’ll have the time of your life! 

About the Author

My name is Shane Stoddard, I am 58 years old, and I am autistic—autistic savant. I am a widower of seven years, I live in Brigham City Utah. I, along with my wife successfully raised a small family; the kids being all grown up. I am a former United States Marine that was injured, and am currently a disabled vet with my P&T rating. Before I was retired, I was a successful locomotive engineer; Union Pacific Railroad trained! I have had a mysterious relationship with trains since I was old enough to breath! I was evaluated for autism three years ago after my daughter suggested that I may be autistic, and sure enough – I am! My area of savantism has allowed my to keep a meticulous memory of how and why I became so enamored with trains. I have accomplished things that others with autism could do as well if they were given the chance.

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