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“It’s a lifetime of freedom to travel”: Overcoming the fear of SkyTrain

Read the story of how Jon, a teen with autism, overcame the fear of boarding the SkyTrain with some help from Mo Hassabou from BCRTC (SkyTrain) and Jon’s teachers.

 

We all have our own unique phobias and some of them are pretty common – claustrophobia or arachnophobia for example are often listed as fears that large numbers of us share. But for some people, their phobias can intrinsically impact their day to day life and present a number of challenges in navigating the world.

For high school student Jon, the SkyTrain presents this very challenge. As a teen with autism, Jon often finds himself unable to enjoy the same hobbies and interests as his classmates, and in some cases, cannot participate in school field trips as he is too scared of our transit system to board the train and join his classmates on activities downtown. Jon gets frustrated with this and it is a problem that both the student and his teachers find upsetting.

Trying to bridge this impasse, some of Jon’s teachers got in touch with SkyTrain to see if anything could be done to help encourage their student onto transit and overcome this hindering fear. Fortunately, Mo Hassabou, a Field Operations Duty Manager, was excited to answer that call and invite young Jon to the Operations and Maintenance Centre (OMC) facilities to coach him through this particular obstacle.

“I worked with children with special needs in my previous career as a teacher and I worked with autistic children then and I thought it would be nice to do that again,” recalls Mo, who was not daunted by the challenge at hand.

Mo had to use all his previous teaching expertise and knowledge of the SkyTrain to make sure Jon felt as comfortable as possible during his visit to the OMC. It wasn’t an easy task as Jon has a fear of confined spaces, crowds and vehicles moving without being in control – the SkyTrain is a perfect mix of these triggers and quite a stressful environment for him.

Despite Jon’s hesitation, Mo could see how interested and determined his student was to board the train. He kept watching all the things Mo was showing him from a distance and was always listening.

“I got him used to what to expect from the train. He saw us all walking in and out, we opened the doors and closed the doors, and I even honked the horn. I asked him if he wanted to come and push buttons. He would come to the door and look but then back away again.”

Mo and Jon’s teachers weren’t beyond a few bribes to get some success.

“The teachers said he liked Michael Jackson songs so I hooked up my phone to the speaker in the train and put Michael Jackson on to get him closer to the train to listen to the song. I played Michael Jackson and we all sang a little,” laughs Mo.

Of course, the way to any teenager’s heart is food and the final trick that encouraged Jon to step onto the train was an offer of raspberries around midday, just when he started to want some lunch. “I think by the end he was a little hungry so the raspberries helped, he wanted some of the snacks so food for sure got him on,” says Mo.

Although Jon didn’t stay on board the train for too long, it was a huge step for the teenager who had never managed to get onto a train before and his teachers were ecstatic with the development, saying that they hoped it would allow him to participate in more school activities and help him integrate all the more with his classmates.

“For me, it’s just three hours of my life; for him, this is the step towards the freedom to travel anywhere at any time.” adds Mo.

Mo hopes that in the future, BCRTC will have more education and interactive elements fall under their scope as they continue to serve Metro Vancouver. Mo sees an opportunity to teach school children (and some adults alike) the importance of train safety and encouraging transit usage from a young age.

“I like to imagine that soon we could have our own ‘Science World’ for SkyTrain, where school trips can come in and classes can learn. That’s what I would like to see in the future. In 10 or 20 years, we would have our own interactive museum where we can have MKIs that aren’t running anymore and kids can come and learn about our system, our history, what makes the train special. They can drive simulators and see what it takes to keep us running. That’s how I see the future, because those kids are our future,” finishes Mo.

Written by Alex Jackson