With Transit Museum’s Subway Sleuths, autistic kids thrive in past — and future
The program is open to kids in second through fifth grade who are on the autism spectrum and have a shared interest in trains.
The New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn is where train and transportation enthusiasts can literally touch the city’s past, but for a group of kids known as the Subway Sleuths, it’s also a key to the future.
Started in 2011, the museum’s Subway Sleuths program has welcomed 150 kids in second through fifth grade who are on the autism spectrum and have a shared interest in trains. Each session features goal-oriented activities that help participants develop social skills, confidence and more.
“It’s very strategic,” said Amanda Franquinha, a special education teacher and support therapist who facilitates each Subway Sleuth session with a museum educator and speech-language pathologist. “We plan each session based on the child’s needs, interests and curiosities, so it’s very geared toward personalizing the program to the children who are in front of us.”
Activities include games like “Two-Minute Turnstile,” where the kids walk through the vintage turnstiles leading into the museum that’s housed in a decommissioned subway station.
Another is “Hold the Pole,” which “helps the sleuths connect to one another. So it’s like, ‘Hold the pole if you like ice cream,’” Franquinha explained. “And everybody stands up, and we hold the pole, and it helps the sleuths be aware, ‘Wait, I’m not alone in this, I like ice cream, and you like ice cream.’ That helps us make connections right from the start.”
Throughout the 10-week program, the facilitators see a “100 percent” change in the kids. “It’s really beautiful and moving,” Franquinha said. “Toward the end, you’ll see them calling each other’s names or when somebody’s absent, they’ll be like, ‘Where are they? Why aren’t they here?’ The wonderful thing for a lot of them is they still maintain that friendship after sleuths. They’re sharing an experience, that’s the actual goal.”
The program also helps alleviate the anxiety some Subway Sleuths may have riding the real subway, from adapting to a late train to being aware of their surroundings.
Last year, Subway Sleuths was noticed by former first lady Michelle Obama, who honored the program with a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.
The real honor for Franquinha, though, is “to be a part of the Transit Museum team, first and foremost every Saturday,” she said. “But we all share the passion for our sleuths and in sharing that passion, the kids feel it, and I think that’s the most moving part because they know that we care, they know that we’re there to share in their passion.”
Applicants are closed for the fall semester of Subway Sleuths, but the spring semester will likely begin taking applications in December. Visit nytransitmuseum.org for info.