Many children have a passion for trains, including youngsters with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). To capture that enthusiasm, the New York Transit Museum has designed a program just for them. Subway Sleuths enables 7- to 11-year-olds with ASD to explore the Museum and its collections, while making friends, developing social skills they will need in school, and building self-confidence through special educational experiences.
The Transit Museum is an interactive, immersive hands-on “classroom” located in a historic subway station in Brooklyn. Exhibits feature such artifacts as maps, turnstiles, and, of course, vintage train cars. Because these young New Yorkers are already familiar with the subway system, the children are comfortable in the Museum’s environment, which makes learning easier for them.
The arts and humanities curriculum challenges Subway Sleuths to work collaboratively, in pairs and in groups, in a space they love. Among other activities, students design train stations and subway cars; go on scavenger hunts to locate historical artifacts; and study archival documents, such as photographs and maps. The education and museum specialists who work with the children see tremendous changes in such target areas as flexibility, social growth, and problem-solving skills.
One Subway Sleuth, in particular, made great strides in social growth. Although nonverbal cues can be tough for many children with autism, they were especially hard for James. It wasn’t until the second-to-last session that James locked eyes with another Sleuth, nodded, and smiled. He was finally able to join the game.
Students attend the Subway Sleuths program on Wednesday, Thursday, or Saturday for 10 weeks in the fall or 12 weeks in the spring. The fall sessions provide 12.5 hours of supervised instruction, while the spring sessions offer 15 hours. A screening process helps facilitators adapt lesson plans to the children’s cognitive and developmental levels. And, to foster an intensive and supportive experience, each session comprises up to three facilitators and six Sleuths.
Since the program began in fall 2011, nearly 100 second through fifth graders have become Subway Sleuths. Reunions enable the children to maintain connections to the Museum and to each other. Through this program, they also learn that autism is not an obstacle to pursuing a career in transportation. In fact, a recent graduate is returning as an intern, helping to design experiences for new Sleuths.
The program’s success has created opportunities for the Museum to present its best practices and lessons learned at many conferences. And, a step-by-step guide enables other museums and after-school programs to incorporate Subway Sleuths’ principles into their own projects for children with ASD.
Children with autism often have their passions tamped down. The message of the Museum [to these children] is much different. We want you to come here! We want you to talk about trains! We are excited about trains, too! And, this is a place for you, a program for you, where you can share your excitement and build relationships at the same time.Elyse Newman Education Director, New York Transit Museum