PLYMOUTH, Wis. — Twelve-year-old Andrew Gray loves trains — so much so that he and his family recently finished building a 250-foot railroad at their campsite at Plymouth Rock Camping Resort.
Julie Gray and her husband Bill, of McHenry, Illinois, designed the project as a type of therapy for their son, who was diagnosed with Asperger's when he was 8 years old.
According to the Austism Society of America, Asperger's is a mild form of autism that affects a child's ability to communicate and socialize.
"Autism is on a scale that goes from low functioning to high functioning and Asperger's has typically been those children who speak early and have characteristics of austism, but can function fairly normally," said Austism Source Specialist Anne Nebeker.
Nebeker said children with Asperger's do not experience the speech delays associated with austism. While they have trouble with social interaction, they tend to do well academically and often become obsessive about a particular skill or interest.
For Andrew, that interest is trains, Sheboygan Press Media reported (http://shebpr.es/1vSrF2Z).
"When he was about 6 months old, he was very in tune with how things worked ... like how wheels turned on his matchbox cars," said Julie. "At about a year old, he kind of latched onto the Thomas, the wooden trains. It has just grown exponentially from there."
Andrew's love of trains, like the interests of other children with Asperger's, serves as a sort of security blanket for him.
"Trains make him comfortable," said Julie. "With this here now, he can talk easier."
Installation for the railroad began in June with Andrew working intensely to get it up and running. He came up with the idea to have an open house for other campers to come enjoy lunch and see the completed project.
"His enjoyment is how others will react," said Bill. "We're seeing him happy because he's seeing other kids and other people enjoy the hobby."
In addition to wanting to teach others about trains, Andrew's passion has evolved into his own educational pursuit.
"We're members of a model railroad club in Illinois and many of the guys are in their 60s and 70s and used to work on the railroad ... and he'll go toe-to-toe with them on knowledge and often wins," said Bill.
Andrew's knowledge of trains has translated to other subjects as well. By becoming familiar with train routes all over the country, he has been able to learn all of the state capitals and knows a lot about geography in areas where railroads are located.
While the Grays live in Illinois during the year, Julie said they have fallen in love with the area and hope to move within the next five to ten years.
"Julie says it feels like it's a different speed," said Bill. "You look at Starbucks at home and everyone's rushing in and out ... You come up here to Elkhart Lake and you sit at 'Off the Rail' and people are sitting there talking and enjoying themselves."
Despite the difficulty of dealing with Asperger's, the Grays have taught their son to focus on the positive and say they have learned a lot from him.
"Because of the social skill aspect, he doesn't disguise how he feels," said Bill. "He's very genuine and very sincere in what he does."
Julie said she talks openly with Andrew about his disorder and hopes in the future he will become self-sustaining, go to college and have a family.
"Hopefully we're giving him all the right tools to do that," said Julie.
Andrew has expressed interest in either becoming an engineer or owning his own model train shop when he grows up.
Information from: Sheboygan Press Media, http://www.sheboygan-press.com
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