Just by coincidence, two documentaries about people with Asperger Syndrome premiered this November. Showing through December 1 at the Metrograph in New York, “Off the Rails” is a portrait of Darius McCollum, an African-American famous (or infamous to the authorities) for commandeering NY’s subway trains and buses, often under the assumed identity of an MTA employee. There is also “Asperger’s Are Us” that can be seen on ITunes and Amazon. It follows four young men with Asperger’s who perform together as a comedy group and who were initially drawn together because telling jokes was one of the ways they could break out of their isolation. In an odd way, McCollum’s obsession with trains was his way of connecting with people, especially when one of his joy rides would make the front-page news. Perhaps joy ride is not the right term since McCollum’s sole interest was in following MTA regulations to the letter, often more conscientiously than any employee.
It was nearly 35 years ago when New Yorkers learned of McCollum’s maiden voyage in the NY Times:
RIDERS UNAWARE AS BOY, 15, OPERATES IND TRAIN
By WOLFGANG SAXON
Published: January 31, 1981
A 15-year-old Queens boy took over the controls of a subway train Thursday night and operated it as its passengers rode unaware for six stops from 34th Street to the World Trade Center, transit authorities reported.
Both the boy and the motorman were arrested. The motorman, Carl Scholack, 46, said he had permitted the boy to take the throttle because he had become ”violently ill,” according to officials. He was suspended from duty pending an investigation.
The train set out from 179th Street in Jamaica on the IND’s E line at 11:25 P.M. with Mr. Scholack in charge, the police said. They said Mr. Scholack, who has been with the Transit Authority for 13 years, told them he had let the youth take over alone at 34th Street, having tested his ability over a two-stop stretch in Queens.
The idea, investigators said, was for the boy to guide the train, which was carrying about a dozen passengers, to the Chambers Street/World Trade Center terminal. He was then to start the return run to Jamaica with Mr. Scholack waiting at 34th Street to resume control.
Officials declined to identify the youth, but other sources named him as Darius McCollum of South Jamaica, a student at a technical school. Officials said his parents had previously asked to have him declared a juvenile in need of supervision. He reportedly picked up a knowledge of subway equipment and signals while ”hanging out” at the Jamaica yards.
If this was his only arrest, he might have been a footnote but as soon as he got out of jail, he surrendered to his obsession many times to the point where he would end up spending half his life behind bars.
Except for appearances by sympathetic lawyers, psychiatrists and social workers who have been involved professionally keeping him out of jail, McCollum is on camera explaining how became so inexplicably devoted to assuming the identity of a subway or bus operator. You’d think that if you were facing five years in Sing Sing, it would be for robbing a bank and not doing the kind of work that made Ralph Kramden miserable for free.
McCollum is a genial sort who does not seem that troubled by all the years he has spent in penitentiaries. Like a drug offender who has just been released from prison, he always returns to the habit that cost him his freedom. Is it possible that he only feels free when he is operating a subway train or bus?
Like drug addicts, there was never any reason to lock McCollum up since he was suffering from a mental illness that compelled him to return to the scenes of his crimes. In the United States today, the prisons are filled with drug addicts and the mentally ill—a symptom of a society in terminal decay. After one of his releases, McCollum landed an internship working for the MTA museum in New York and was doing an exceptional job—no surprise given his encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s transportation system. As soon as the MTA found out, they told the museum to fire him. Once he lost that connection, it was inevitable that he would begin taking over trains and buses again. So, who is mentally ill? McCollum or the men in suits who were ready to crucify him? That is the question posed by this compelling documentary.
Unlike Darius McCollum, the four men in “Asperger’s Are Us” live fairly conventional lives as the children of white middle-class New England suburbanites. They met more than a decade ago at a camp for children with Asperger’s and discovered that they all liked to make jokes.
Like McCollum, there is not much in the way they speak or behave that would give you the impression that they were on the autism spectrum except for those moments when they get stressed out. When they are rehearsing at one of their homes, the youth who lives there begins to pace nervously because his parents are there. Like most people with Asperger’s, he is not comfortable with intimacy. In another scene, we see his father touching him affectionately in the kitchen—something that it took a long time for him to accept.
The film follows the four around as they rehearse for their yearly theatrical appearance that shows the influence of Monty Python. They readily admit that they are indifferent to the audience response since their real goal is to bond with each other doing what they enjoy. As they laugh at each other’s antics, you would mistake them for any four undergrads, which in fact is what they are or will become. One of them has been accepted into a year-long program at Oxford and we learn in the closing credits that he won an award for his academic performance. He is now working on a PhD on the Nordic model for combatting sex trafficking.
Ironically, one of them has the same obsession with trains as McCollum but was able to put it to productive use. His hobby, which involved gaining a detailed knowledge of the national train network, led to him work on a master’s degree in transportation planning.
Both films will help you understand Asperger’s better even if both lack the talking head expertise of psychiatrists. A quick look on the Internet revealed that there are some well-known people with the illness (if you want to call it that) including Dan Ackroyd.
Considered a milder autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it differs from others by allowing relatively normal language and intelligence. It is estimated that 31 million people suffer from Asperger’s globally and there is no “cure” as such. Wikipedia states: “Some researchers and people on the autism spectrum have advocated a shift in attitudes toward the view that autism spectrum disorder is a difference, rather than a disease that must be treated or cured.”
As is the case with cancer, some experts believe that environmental factors have led to an increase in the number of all autism cases, including Asperger’s. Given the drift of late capitalism, you can be assured that the environmental factor will multiply exponentially as corporations seek profits over well-being. That’s the real madness when you stop and thing about it.