Connecting trains

Puzzling over Isaac’s future is a hazardous pursuit. It’s not just envisioning him in a socialised yet unforgiving world, a contradictory place of competition and compassion, which can set me off course for a day. Keeping a grip on reality has also meant putting any hopes and dreams on hold.

Actually, those abstract – seemingly starting in utero – educational aspirations, and their accompanying agonies of catchment areas and private schools, never became more than that: abstract. Before abating to absolute non-existence as autism and its challenges took over (schooling becomes an obsession of course but for very different reasons). 


Much tougher to shake off have been the softer dreams that smooth the childhood journey. Like the first best friend, sleepovers, magic shows, dressing up, leaps of imagination, signs of independence. And overwhelmingly, that bastion of father son bonding, football.


Pre-Isaac I’d been pretty sure that I’d have a little boy who, like me, loved the game, and specifically, Crystal Palace Football Club. It’s good old-fashioned dad fodder. Taking a son to watch his (and your) heroes is a wonderful part of our country’s DNA. Surely it would be in my DNA too.


For now though I have to live with the truth that football and Isaac are not ideally suited. Playing will play havoc with his hypo sensitivity and permanent off balance sensibility; not to mention his currently clumsy coordination. Rules that are frequently flounced and fairly flexible will collide horribly with his rigid system – however developed it becomes. Teamwork as a concept for his age group is in its infancy, but still he would miss its rudiments of complex social cues, reciprocity, instinct and competitiveness risking him being a misfit.


Watching football demands fluid sensory capabilities, a stark contrast to his see-and-hear-all take on the world. Successfully spectating involves real time visual editing of looking this way and that, from periphery to centre stage, in and out of focus, blurring, ignoring, focusing again. In the full and frenzied nature of a football match, the difficulty he’ll have deciphering means his coping mechanism of singular repetitive behaviour would be the only remedy. All this explains why the presence of any football in his vicinity has been a little bewildering and pretty much blocked out.


And although individually surmountable, he could well crumble under the combined effects of a live game such as the crowds, lights, noise, stewards shepherding us about, unpredictability, flowing narrative, oscillating moods, partisanship, nuanced comment. Why do patterns of play always change; why aren’t outcomes identical? Altogether an avalanche of autism un-friendly attributes. So the heralded visit to first game with my son is perhaps the last thing I’d contemplate.


Which means I have to currently live with this clipped dream. Contentedly it has to be said when compared to the distress I’d put him in by seeking some sort of paternal utopia. The dream is indeed on hold. But I’m not too bereft.



Anyway, we have trains. Our very own father, son pastime.

Isaac would happily live his entire life on a train. At times he’ll go through days and weeks as if permanently on the Jubilee line with a twin recital of pitch perfect engine sounds and station names, and it can be difficult getting him to alight. Except to an ipad for some blasts of YouTube clips of filmed tube journeys.


It’s not too difficult to see why tube trains satisfy the not-very-enquiring mind. Identical length journeys. Predictable destinations. Regularity. For the sensory seeker, they also provide the manna of moving lights, same sounds and perpetual motion; things Isaac replicates when not on a tube train by deftly but ferociously flapping his blue flannel inches from his eyes.


Travelling on and watching tube trains have therefore always featured in Isaac’s life. Starting as some sort of sedative, the only location that would still his troubled soul, they have evolved to be something much more. Because whilst Isaac may not have been ready for my ritual of watching football, I made myself readily available for his ritual of train journeys. 


They have become a fully-fledged, regular joint activity that has facilitated conversation and learning, allowed new experiences to be introduced, offered me a glimmer of his considerable memory (with the side-effect of me glowing with delight). They have also enabled him to be downright, deliriously happy.


Our almost weekly trips around the London Underground have cultivated a cause-and-effect dependency and neatly developed it into a something deeper and more meaningful. Our bond was born on the Bakerloo line and has blossomed throughout the entire London Underground network and its multiple journeys and destinations. It’s highly possible that with every train connection we experience together, we connect more.


Somewhat unsurprisingly, once we accomplished our first 3 hour round trip from Kensal Green, his expectation was to do it identically the next time.  From watching three red trains heading for Elephant and Castle and at least one orange train for Euston, before urgently and enthusiastically boarding the next one. As well as cracking into crackers at Euston, waiting for Harrow and Wealdstone for milk, and then hovering at Kensal Green to witness one last southbound train. The minute detail and order he recalls is fundamental to the experience and fascinating to behold.  And not only do I need to follow him as I invariably forget facts, I must treat it with respect too as he rapidly gets concerned if it wavers in any way.


Of course, this craving of repetition and routine could compromise his learning. Subsequent trips playing out exactly the same with no discoveries or new dialogue between us. But whilst any visit to Kensal Green is pretty much limited to the journey described, there’s nothing to stop us starting at different destinations and stretching his seeming limitless capacity to remember, absorb and repeat back.


We have five or six trips now. Each mutually exclusive from one another.


The gospel at Gospel Oak? “Sandwich with yellow cheese please. Let’s get off and go to Barking, daddy.”


What to do at Dollis Hill? “Quick, quick, we must get on and go to Westminster. I love the Jubilee line daddy.  Daddy, can we cross the train bridge and see the big wheel? …Lift me up, lift me up! This is such fun!”


Then there’s Brondsbury Park, Golders Green…you get the picture. The scripts for each journey unique, thorough and painstakingly thought through.


There is room to embrace new things. Once he has the solid foundations in place, windows of opportunity for adding a detour to the trip are rare but do exist. This became clear on the amble from Westminster to Waterloo, where passing a café I suggested we could sit in and eat some chocolate buttons. He was open to it, sat down, shared some bread with me and that became a fixed part of that trip. Bringing Isaac to a café, to sit and have a meal is difficult and challenging. On the rehearsed journey from Dollis Hill to Waterloo via Westminster and the train bridge, it’s become a doddle; in fact it absolutely has to happen.


It’s all part of a (self-explanatory) process called bar coding; which is how he processes and recalls events. It sheds more light on his mind, which in turn empowers us.


There is a parallel with the father son football bond just witnessing his wide eyed elation and sharing it with me. I feel he’ll never tire of appearing to discover seeing a “train, train….Daddy, the train for Elephant and Castle is coming. We’re not getting on!” Or observing happenings during the trip with the poise and particularity of, well, a train announcer. “The driver’s speaking. Tell mummy, we heard the driver speaking…let’s tell mummy!” (Of course different drivers speaking at different times could be incendiary. But admirably he’s started to accept minor deviations in his life like this; something I’m extraordinarily impressed by him achieving and my wife for teaching).


Also, the tube map has become our football stickers; pouring over it, recognising points, querying each other about what’s where. An affirmation of his burgeoning photographic memory.


I abhor the autism-for-all, we’re all on the spectrum, school of (lazy) thought. But appreciating his way of thinking has accessed a systemised sense to my cognition that, delightfully, provides quite a substitute to the paraphernalia, information based adoration football allows.


I’m proud of Isaac for his proficiency for what some would deem prosaic but I see as full of purpose. Often on a train he’ll stop me in his tracks with his exhaustive delivery of all the stations, in order, on a whole line. And when one of those stations is Crystal Palace, I do let myself dream – one day, maybe one day. Not for now though. There are trains to catch.

18 thoughts on “Connecting trains”

  1. Without the experience to draw upon either as a football son or father, I found myself spluttering into my morning coffee as Matty unfolds his sense of loss of the early son-father-footballing rite of passage and wondered if I would be able to get to the end without having to leave the café. True to form though he brings into the sharpest focus the special qualities not simply of Isaac's mind, but the very essence of a happy child. And the intensity of a father's love for an extraordinary (with all its nuances) son. Crystal Palace tickets – underground and football ground – no longer seem so mutually exclusive. Peter M

  2. I completely agree with the "beautifully written" sentiment, but I also found it very moving and very illuminating for someone like me who can only begin to imagine what it must be like to raise an autistic son. I commend you to submit this article to a quality national newspaper, as it deserves to be exposed to a wider audience and would prove to be very educative. Well done.

  3. Lovely story, Matt. "Dad" is the best job in the world, but unfortunately it doesn't come with a "job description" – you just have to make it up as you go along.

    I remember taking my autistic daughter for trips on the Jubilee line as a day out – she used to love that. The little train at Ruislip Lido was a big favourite. I would recommend a family holiday in Blackpool – I suspect it's a mecca for people with ASD – Isabel loved the trams and the rides at the pleasure beach.

    When Isabel was Isaac's age, I couldn't imagine what future she had, but 17 years on she has a good degree and has travelled independently around the world (currently in Australia). I still think her love of travel started with London Underground – the biggest train set in the world.

  4. Beautifully written. My son is 3 with severe learning disability and traits of autism. We worried about taking him to busy places as he hated sudden noises and crowds of people. But we found his love of music and song. Other mums talked about taking their child to the movies, to see that first film. Because he makes a lot of repetitive noise I would never be able to do that, but I went to the previewing of the 'Snowman and the Snowdog', it's only 30 minutes and full of music and to my amazement he sat on my lap, looked up at the big screen and watched in silence.

    So don't give up, it will happen, the train to Selhurst Park a family friendly day – you may not stay for the whole match but at least he'll experience it. Well done.

  5. I now understand why my somewhat autistic friend is so attracted and so knowledgeable about underground trains and systems (in any country). He also knows every bus and train route in London and the green belt, (he used to be an ‘anorak’ bus and train spotter!). He is also a genius who recalls books, films, discussions, maps – practically every topic – in great detail, because he has a photographic and aural memory. He is a mathematician, programmer and writer. No doubt your son will also acquire many other gifts as he grows. Well done to you for encouraging him and finding something you can share together now, but the world is still his oyster!

  6. Hi, there are Autism/disabilities friendly cinema screenings around the country now. Fab idea 🙂 I got info from Ambitious About Autism site and Kent Autistic Traust. Happy new year to you x

  7. Such a moving, articulate and expressive piece. Seeing Isaac weekly or so, I can see his enormous progress under your understanding and reactive encouragement.

  8. Ah, trains and autism! Even more, the tube and autism.
    AS wiht you, my 19 year old son is similarly captivated by the tube. Happily, he also likes swimming. So we now regularly travel across London by tube to a favoured swimming pool. Five hours later we return home. If my son had his way, the tube journey would be even more circuitous. Ian Bright

  9. This is a beautifully written blog, I really enjoyed reading it. It also reminded me a lot about my brother who goes to your Son's school too; he loves trains (DLR trains in particular!) Keep up the good work! Best, Julia.

  10. This was recommended to me after I wrote something similar on my own blog. I'm an adoptive mum of a traumatised child, and I've recently realised (after 5 years of being his mum) that my hopes and dreams, and especially my expectations of motherhood have had to change.

    Thank you for sharing your views and feelings, I can identify in many ways x

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