Social Engagement is Sparked by Special Interests at the New York Transit Museum

As humans, we seek out like-minded individuals who share our interests.Sleuths are all smiles in the favorite train car of many, The Standard. Spring 2014 People with autism are no different. At the New York Transit Museum, shared interests in trains and transportation are at the heart of our Subways Sleuths program for 2nd-5th graders diagnosed with autism. Through this program students excel in an environment where they are experts. Some see specific areas of interest in individuals with autism as obsessions, but the New York Transit Museum celebrate these interests and use them to spark deeper social interactions.

The New York Transit Museum encourages students on the autism spectrum to apply for this program who not only have an interest in trains, but who will be able to use their language to share experiences and collaborate on projects. Subway Sleuths groups are formed by age and meet after school or on the weekend. Each group meets for ten sessions that are an hour and a half in length. There are no more than 6 students in each group.

Sessions are led by 3 facilitators: one museum educator, one special education teacher from New York City’s ASD NEST Program, and one Speech-Language Pathologist. Together, they make a winning team because each facilitator brings different specialized knowledge to the program.

During the ten weeks, Sleuths have a lot of fun! They get an opportunity to share their transit knowledge by solving mysteries, working together to explore train maps, and leading discussions. Sleuths even have an encounter with our costumed interpreter from the past where they are able to ask questions about the yester-years. At the end of each session, there is an essential moment where Sleuths have the opportunity to reflect on what they’ve done for the day by sharing pictures, phrases, and languages on their “train stops” schedule. This helps them recall language and social skills they learned in a way that interest them.

Children collaborate on a project using a computer.

Throughout the program, Sleuths are given the opportunity to document their sessions with an I-Pad camera. This culminates in a design project where they work in pairs to create a book telling a story about their time in Sleuths. In the last session, parents are invited to join their children for a special graduation ceremony. It’s a joyous time where sleuths can share their museum with parents and celebrate accomplishments.

Specialized museums like the New York Transit Museum have a unique opportunity to reach out to young people who have a passion for the museum’s subject matter and can benefit socially from targeted museum programs. In return, not only do you get young people that can bring expertise to your institution, but you get new visitors who feel comfortable and excited to come into your space. The Social Underground, consultants for the Subway Sleuths program believe, “Once we embrace the idea that children can be experts in the things that interest them…the possibilities are endless!”

To learn more about Subway Sleuths and other programs for visitors, please visit

 See Subway Sleuths featured on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer!