When I heard Spike’s school was holding a talent competition, I felt he should be a part of it. So much of school is about what he can't do, what he struggles with. This was an opportunity to celebrate Spike's strengths. We entered a sweet video of him draped louchely over a chair at our dining table, casually answering trivia questions about the London Underground with razor-sharp precision. The next day his classmates talked about the video, excitedly, and I received messages from their parents, marvelling at Spike's talent. One earnest parent enquired, "How did you get him to memorise the stations?".
It's not an unreasonable question, but it made me chuckle. The real difficulty would be trying to stop him from drinking up the slithering lines of transit maps, or from insta-filing the station sequences of route maps, or from committing the class and livery of each train encountered to his prodigious memory. Spike's intense interests are a thing to behold. His acquisition of this knowledge seems effortless.
Spike’s finds trains rebalancing and restorative. He is not the cliched London commuter, schlepping home through the specific architecture of the railways environs, rendered hum-drum through familiarity. Each mile of electromechanical patter and whine accrues Spike psychological tokens, which he can spend in less blissful settings. He returns home beaming, resilient, with a straight spine. For this reason, we try to accommodate his interest as much as his other commitments allow.
When the weekend rolls around, either Ben or I will accompany him on a jaunt to the outer reaches of the Bakerloo line, or to locate a Class 387. This is because we understand that Spike is a hard-working 8 year old. He is a stoic in small packaging, constantly facing challenges. But we also have to try and strike a balance between Spike’s needs and the needs of the wider family.
Our “divide and conquer” approach to weekend parenting reduces friction, but erodes our time spent as a unit. To avoid the fraying of family bonds we decided we needed a whole-family weekend ritual. My vote was for bacon sandwiches at a local cafe. Last weekend, we failed to make our appointment with bacon sandwiches, having got side-tracked by a soap foam fight and the subsequent clean-up. Oh well.
It is also true that sometimes we would rather not spend our days riding trains. But, perhaps not as often as you might think. At first, I struggled with these odd journeys and pressed Spike to travel to a destination where there was something to see or do - a museum, a park, shops. But, determined to meet him on his terms, I learned to relax. I people watch, I eavesdrop, I discover new parts of my city and connect them to more familiar geography. Make no mistake: this is top-quality Spike time, too. So rather than trying to restrict his interest (which would be fruitless and serve only to damage our relationship with him), we try to expand and broaden Spike’s horizons; we sketch in new zones of interest and lines of enquiry on his mental route map.
We also look for opportunities to leverage Spike's passion for trains. This might seem a little cynical but, while I think special interests are a powerfully positive force, they can become consuming. They can take over every conversation, every thought, if you let them. We want rail to be Spike's sanctuary, but not a hiding place. As well as stretching his interests, we look for opportunities to make them functional. We encourage Spike to be a good traveller. There is little point loving trains, but not being able to travel safely on them. We ask him to prepare a list of what he needs to pack, to plan journeys in advance, to consider alternative routes. We are teaching him to observe signage in order to navigate stations and to behave safely and well on platforms and in carriages.
It is notable that a good train journey can elevate Spike from despair to elation. But a line or station closure can send him plummeting into a black hole [shakes fist at TFL]. The intensity and singular focus of his special interest and of the emotions it inspires seems akin to falling in love. There is an obsessional desire to drink in each small detail and to devote every moment of wakefulness to thinking about it. Run-of-the-mill hobbies - a flirtation with embroidery or barefoot running - appear shallow and transitory when measured against an autistic special interest.
The progression of Spike’s focus from letters, numbers and shapes, through to film studio logos and idents - Universal, 20th Century Fox, Disney* and then onto logos from the high street, arriving at the famed London Underground roundel and, finally, at trains is an evolution of sorts. It makes sense. And so, I should have known it would happen: the segue from trains to buses, from rail to road.
Arriving at a train station prompts a tiny fizz of excitement. Less so since I have had children, admittedly, where a surplus of baggage and unpredictable juveniles mean the fizz is more like a cortisol spike. But there is a sense of possibility and a straight, swift line to your destination. Bus stations, on the other hand, are dank and smell of despair. Bus air is stale and - impossibly, too hot and slightly too cold. The windows get sweaty. Buses lurch and get stuck in jams. Despite their iconic, cheery red shell they sometimes feel drab. A little piece of me hopes this segue is a sub-interest (which can pop up and burn brightly before extinguishing). It is possible, however, that we are at the dawning of the Bus Era. So, for the past couple of weekends, I have been practicing "enjoying the ride".
There is a whole new vocabulary to swot up on - Abellio, Arriva, Alexander Dennis. A new design language to learn and many more eye-catching combinations of moquette and pole colour. Like trains, buses represent shared journeys. They are a public space. But the relative cheapness of a fare, the intensely local routes and the interactions with other road users make buses feel more humane. Bus passengers are famously less inhibited than those travelling by rail which, weirdly, makes me feel both safer and more vulnerable. On trains, the seats dictate that passengers must face one another. It is a confrontation of sorts. It forces you to look at your shoes. The serried ranks of bus seats, facing the direction of travel, give the illusion of privacy. Conversations proceed as they might across a kitchen table.
A weekend or two ago, I gritted my teeth and, at Spike’s request, embarked upon a journey culminating in a bus ride from Harrow & Wealdstone to Watford Junction. As the bus puttered into Bushey, the gentle mound of the heathlands hove into view beyond the antique high street and my spirits lifted. Buses give you a better sense of the geography of a place. The architecture of life is just outside the window, rather than an austere railway embankment. And I’m still not driving, which is excellent.
Accepting change is one of the pillars of our work with Spike. In life “Cold things grow hot, the hot cools, the wet dries, the parched moistens**...” and we, as parents, are arbiters of the approaching moment. We decide how much to protect him, how much sameness to concede, how much to expose him. We seek a fine balance between offering him a refuge and building resilience to the flux of life. And Spike is changing, too. First trains, now buses. I also need to accept change, and flow.
* Spike can write fluently in Disney font!
** Sorry for inflicting the word "moistens" on you.
Want to read more? My autistic son's true love.