If there's one topic 12-year-old Andrew Gray of McHenry never grows tired of discussing, it's his love of trains. In fact, he's the youngest member of the Lake County Model Railroad Club.
"He wakes up and goes to sleep talking about trains," his mom, Julie Gray said.
Andrew's intense passion for trains is not the only thing that makes this young man unique.
Andrew has Asperger syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by social and communication deficits that may include a lack of normal back and forth conversations, eye contact and body language, and trouble relating to peers. Another common feature of Asperger's is having fixated interests and demonstrating repetitive behaviors.
The cause of Asperger syndrome is not known, though medical research points to abnormal migration of embryonic cells during fetal development that affects brain structure and neural circuits controlling thought and behavior, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NIH).
Andrew, who was diagnosed at age 8, is now highly functioning, but he did not begin talking until age 4. His mother also calls him a "miracle baby" because he survived spinal meningitis when he was just 5-weeks-old.
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For Andrew, his fixated interest (a symptom of Asperger syndrome) is trains, but it's helped to bring him out of his shell and make him more comfortable in social situations, his mother said.
"It's a very healthy hobby for him. It forces him to talk," Julie said.
And talk he does.
What interests Andrew the most about trains, he said, is "their power and the kind of things they transport."
"I love to talk about trains with anyone that will listen," Andrew said. "Sometimes I talk over their heads because of all my knowledge, but I can't help myself."
Andrew also loves to share train trivia.
"There are a couple facts that I bet people don't know," he said. "One, freight train operators work 12-hour shifts, and two, each freight and/or passenger train has their own unique train horn."
One of Andrew's favorite activities is attending Friday night meetings of the Lake County Model Railroad Club with his dad, Bill, who also is a member.
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"The members are teaching me new things about modeling and creating layouts," Andrew said. "I really enjoy the open houses we have twice a year, too."
Club leader Norm Kocol said Andrew is a quick learner who absorbs information about trains "like a sponge" and holds his own in conversation.
"Andrew has some adults learning from him," Kocol said.
At home, Andrew enjoys setting up model trains.
"I have an HO at home and a G scale at our place in Plymouth, Wisconsin," Andrew said. "My favorite design layout is modern-day industrial with crossings, and rural with signal railroad crossings. For Christmas, I have a 4-foot tree that sits in the middle of my HO layout and it is decorated with all train ornaments."
Andrew also is a big fan of Metra, which his dad takes to work, and Amtrak. Julie said her son's morning ritual before arriving to school at Westlake Christian Academy in Grayslake, where Andrew is a sixth-grader, is to watch the commuter train pass by on Center Street.
"It's kind of like his cup of coffee," she said.
Andrew's favorite destination for train-watching is the double diamond crossing of Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe in Rochelle and the famous Horseshoe Curve in Altoona, Pennsylvania.
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Andrew also has ridden trains at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, the National Railway Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and the Cog Railway in New Hampshire up to the highest peak of the Appalachian Mountains.
"One day I would like to visit Powder River Basin in Wyoming to see the BNSF and UP coal trains," Andrew said.
When he grows up, Andrew said he'd like to own or work in a train hobby shop.
"My parents think I should work for the actual railroad because I have so much knowledge and it's such a great opportunity to see our beautiful country," he said.