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Waiting for the train – A chance encounter taps into bigger things.

Click to Enlarge

Click To Enlarge To See My Little Engine.

My wife and I have been on the road for the past few weeks. First I gave a presentation in Vermont (go here, but watch out: The file is 15 MB). From there we cut over to Maine, where we have been enjoying the ocean, craft shows, lobster . . . and trains. While my wife has been frequenting craft shows, I have run my model steam engine at a couple of “steam-ups,” and visited two steam railroad museums. (The American Dairy Council’s slogan used to be “You Never Outgrow Your Need for Milk,” but it’s really “Trains.”)

One of the high points of this vacation (for me, anyway) was bringing my little engine to the museum where its big brother resides. Look closely at the photo above, and you can see my engine perched on the running board of its prototype. As I stepped back to take this photograph, a young man stepped forward (into the frame of the photo), staring intently. I waited patiently, but he seemed to be unaware that he was blocking my shot, and he gave no indication of moving. After a minute or two, I asked him politely if he could step back while I took my picture.

Is the train leaving now?” he asked, in a somewhat anxious tone.

No, I didn’t think so, I told him. “But soon.” (And not until after I had taken my picture and removed my locomotive from the running board! I had obtained the engineer’s permission before placing my prized possession in such a precarious position).

Is the train leaving now?,” he repeated, leaning forward just a bit, arms flexed ever so slightly.

Then it clicked. “Hi,” I said. “What’s your name?” He gave his name – we’ll call him Eli (not his real name). I opened up a simple conversation with him: How old are you? Where do you live? Do you like trains? Eli responded politely, frequently interjecting his initial question (“Is the train leaving now?”), to which I repeated the same reassurance: “Not yet, but soon.”

After chatting with Eli for several minutes, I packed up my engine and made ready to go. At that point I caught sight of Eli’s father, seated nearby. “Thank you,” he murmured in a heartfelt tone of voice. Part of me felt like saying “Oh, it was nothing.” Or, “I used to do this for a living. I can see what others can’t: Eli is a nice young man, who responds to human kindness in his own way, despite his ASD.” But I worried that to say those things might be an invasion of the family’s privacy, or might reduce the value of my interaction with his son: Dad might see Eli’s successful interaction with me as less of an achievement on his son’s part, knowing that I was not an “ordinary” stranger. All of this flashed through my mind in the brief second it took for dad and me to exchange glances. So instead of revealing my own identity or background, I said “I enjoyed it as much as Eli!” – which was also true, but only half of the story. What I didn’t tell Eli’s dad was that I miss patient care, and talking with Eli helped me to fill that void, now that I have retired from clinical practice.

Of course, now that I’ve blogged on this, it’s possible that Eli’s father will discover who I am. But the conundrum is mine, not his, in any case. And regardless of my training, what I did was the decent thing to do, and Eli did respond appropriately. He moved back when asked without getting agitated, he kept up his end of the conversation, and did his best to navigate the real world. Dad also did his part: observing at a distance, and letting his son test his legs.

I’m afraid there are a lot of people who might not “get” Eli, who might have asked him less gently to move out of the way of the picture, or might have shied away from his repeated questioning. Worse still, there are predators out there who ridicule or exploit people like Eli. We are making progress as a society, but we’re not there yet.

Until the next time.


James Coplan, MD is an Internationally recognized clinician, author, and public speakerin the fields of early child development, early language development and autistic spectrum disorders. Join Dr. Coplan on Facebook and Twitter. Have a question for Dr. Coplan? Ask the doctor.


2 responses to “Waiting for the train – A chance encounter taps into bigger things.”

  1. MaryLee Hensley says:

    Thank you for all you do! Happy Holidays☮

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