Thursday, November 5, 2015

On Tracks

by ProjectManhatten CC BY-SA

A friend asked me if I could give any insight as to why an autistic acquaintance of his was so fascinated by trains. I’m not myself particularly fascinated by trains but I had a vague intuition that such a fascination did make sense. Though I gave it my best shot, I couldn’t really articulate a good explanation at the time, but I’ve been thinking about it since.
As you walk down the street are aware of constantly falling to one side or the other and needing to correct to keep your balance? Only you have to be careful not to over correct or you'll make the situation worse. Just exactly the precisely right correction is needed. But exactly how much to correct is a very difficult calculation. Take a look at the early attempts to mots with human like strides. A human like stride requires constantly updating judgments of balance that are actually quite complex.
I’m not consciously aware to all the calculations that go into staying balanced when I walk. But when I turn my mind inward and consider what I’m doing as a walk, I’m aware of something tense and stressed just below the level of my deliberate thoughts. There’s a feeling connected to my balance of something that’s never stable, that’s never settled, that I’m constantly uncertain of. It’s something that’s intrinsically unpleasant and unsettling. We I was a child I remember like to run my hand along fences or rails when I walked. When there was nothing suitable I would extend my hand so it made an imaginary line to the border of the sidewalk of some other guide that I could could as a reference point, as an additional sense of stability.
When I’m thinking of other things that sense fades into a disregarded buzz in the back of my awareness, but the doesn’t mean it has no effect on me. Mostly it is something that I notice not by its presence but by its absence. In the room I teach Sunday School in there are these movable partitions in tracks in the ceiling. If you push them or pull them by leaning your weight into them slightly they give you a little extra feed back as they move because they only want to move in a certain line. I like to be the one to move the partition. When I open or close it there’s a wonderful sense of relaxation, of being able to move without the stress.

I think a major part of the faciation of trains may be the tracks. The idea of something guiding the path precisely, of something providing stability even in the midst of motion, may be the source of the attraction. To someone with an intuition of the inherent instability of bipedal motion, or to someone with sensory issues who experiences motion as jarringly unpredictable, interacting with something on tracks can be very appealing. Seeing a train following exactly the visually predicted path, feeling the feedback through your fingertips as you play with a toy train, it could provide a sense of stability and an opportunity to relax.