Can Stealing Buses, Trains Be a Sickness?

Transportation fixation has been linked to Asperger syndrome.

August 1, 2008— -- Some boys never grow out of their attraction to moving vehicles. As adults, they just transition from toys to the real thing.

So it was for 18-year-old James L. Harris, who was arrested on July 22 in Florida for burglary and grand theft auto of a Miami-Dade Transit bus. According to the Miami-Dade Police Department, Harris dressed up like a bus driver and drove the bus throughout the county.

Darius McCollum, however, is more of a train man. On June 14, the 43-year-old was arrested in New York City for criminal trespassing in the subway. According to the New York County District Attorney's Office, it was his 11th arrest in Manhattan.

McCollum himself counts his total number of arrests as more than 20, all of which were related to his transportation fascination.

Harris' stepmother, Helen, says she is not aware of any medical condition that may be behind his actions, and she refused to comment further on his arrest when contacted by ABC News.

However, McCollum's mother, Elizabeth, says that Darius' train fixation may be related to his Asperger syndrome.

"Asperger syndrome is a close cousin of autism," says Ami Klin, director of the Autism Program at the Yale Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine.

This lifelong brain developmental disorder makes it difficult for people to judge others' feelings, thoughts and intentions, Klin says.

In addition, narrow interests are common in people who have Asperger syndrome.

Klin says he has seen patients who have learned everything they can about telephone pole insulators, deep fat fryers, marine biology and currencies. He even maintains a list of 80 or 90 such topics of interest.

"We tend to use our knowledge about people to understand the world of things," Klin says. "With children with autism and Asperger's, they tend to use their knowledge about things to understand people."

Taken With Trains

Elizabeth McCollum says that her son, Darius, has been in love with locomotives "forever."

"That's my fault," she says. "When he was big enough to barely walk, he was traveling on the train. Every morning we got up and went somewhere. If it wasn't out of town, it was on the subway."

She remembers waiting on the subway platform near their home in Jamaica, Queens, one morning when her son was 4 years old. "He wouldn't let me hold his hand," Elizabeth McCollum says. "He wanted to lean over the track and see the train coming."

When it arrived, she says he pulled her up to the front car and told her to look out the window.

"See! See the tracks!" she remembers him saying. "He knew about tracks, and could tell you about yardage and everything. It's unbelievable. ... He knew that underground system better than he knew his name."

Darius, who now lives with his parents in Winston-Salem, N.C., says that he is fascinated with every aspect of this means of transportation, "the people, the life, the way the train operates, how it all fits together."

By the time he was a teenager, Darius says he talked his way into train yards and employee-only areas of the E and F subway trains, just by saying that one of the workers was his uncle.

"People taught me down there, especially on weekends because there were no big bosses," he says.

He knew so much, he says, that one night when he was 15, a conductor asked him to take over the end of his route. "First I declined, and then said, OK, why not," Darius remembers.

Darius says that the conductor got off the train at 34th Street, while Darius continued on "down the road."

He says he picked up passengers at every stop and discharged the train at the World Trade Center. To Darius, it was business as usual.

"He loved that train so much," Elizabeth says. "He put his heart and soul into it. He wasn't going to do anything to hurt anybody."

Arrests and Asperger

That incident led to the first of Darius McCollum's nearly two dozen arrests for his actions related to the transportation system.

"Once he got a taste of that subway train and they let him drive," Elizabeth says, "he wasn't coming home."

She says she had never understood what could be triggering Darius' behavior until his diagnosis of Asperger syndrome in 2002.

In contrast to many individuals who have autism, people who have Asperger syndrome are often adept at communication and have good language skills, Klin says.

Elizabeth says that Darius fits this description. He transferred among several school systems, which Elizabeth says was related to his high intelligence; he was completing junior high-level work when he was only 8.

"He does everything so fast, in a hurry. ... After he finished, he needed more to do," she says.

However, this educational aptitude does not carry over to their communication skills, Klin says, so people who have Asperger syndrome tend to have difficulty with social relationships.

"They are very much at the mercy of others," Klin says. "They are extremely vulnerable to be the victims of pranks."

When Darius was 11 or 12, Elizabeth says he was attacked by one of his classmates, who first tried to scratch his eyes out, and then dug a pair of scissors into his back.

She says that after these incidents, Darius would wake up in the middle of the night screaming, "I see the knife!"

He was beat up by other kids and had his money stolen many times, she remembers. When this happened, he ran out of school.

"Anytime that something happens to him, he runs away," Elizabeth says. "And he runs right to his home, which is in the subway."

Slipping Through the Cracks

Rather than learning to function in the world and interacting with others, Klin says that people who have Asperger syndrome instead collect information about the world.

Sheila Wagner, assistant director at the Emory Autism Center at Emory University, says that this trait often earns people with Asperger's the nickname "the little professor."

But this intelligence can also be the reason why someone with Asperger's may go undiagnosed for many years.

"People see that high cognitive ability and get focused on cognitive potential, but they don't focus on the struggles that they have socially," Wagner says. "Many times [people who have Asperger] slip through the cracks until later."

In addition, until 1994, Asperger disorder was not even listed in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders used by health professionals to evaluate patients.

Even so, getting diagnosed does not mean that treatment can result in a cure.

"There is no medication that is going to make this condition disappear," Wagner says.

However, educational and behavioral therapy can be beneficial, Klin says, adding that people who have Asperger's must be taught the rules of social interaction, such as taking turns while talking.

Also, they must learn to adjust to social cues, such as voice inflection, and to adjust the volume of their speech when necessary.

Though treatment helps at every age, Klin says, "We know the earlier we start treating these conditions, the more likely we are to make a dent in the natural course of the condition."

Dealing with the Disorder

Darius McCollum, who was diagnosed just six years ago at the age of 37, hasn't received much treatment for the condition. "You can never catch up with him," Elizabeth says.

He did, however, attend a handful of meetings of GRASP, the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership.

"After the diagnosis, he had been sent to us," says Michael John Carley, the executive director of GRASP, who also has Asperger syndrome. "There was the usual amount of huge relief that you see in most adult diagnoses. Suddenly there is a reason for so much that has gone on in the past that you haven't been able to explain."

Though Darius hasn't participated much in GRASP, Carley still stays in touch with him, even during Darius' times in jail.

"He is a very well-spoken, very likable guy, which is really hard to believe when you look at the iconography of someone who's spent more than half of his adult life behind bars," Carley says.

The solution to his criminal problem, Carley says, would have been for the Manhattan Transportation Authority to hire him. "He would have been their best employee."

Darius agrees, saying that he is "overqualified" for a position there but that his criminal record has prevented it.

The New York City Transit declined to comment on his actions or any personnel inquiries.

"I figure that if I had gotten in the system the way I wanted to, I should be general superintendent or chief by now," he says.

A Turning Point?

After his most recent arrest, Darius faces a decision.

"He has a very, very hard choice to make," Carley says. Darius can try to make a life for himself or he can continue with his criminal behavior, he explains.

Darius says that he has chosen his path already.

Though he loves New York, he says he's trying to get a job where people don't know as much about his reputation. He'd like to get certified as a track inspector in a Southern state and start working on small railroads.

When he was younger, Darius says he didn't think about how risky it was for him to operate trains without official instruction. But as he's gotten older, he understands the concern.

"I think about how dangerous it can be now ... how more people could be hurt, even though I don't do anything when I'm down there," he says about his time spent in the subway recently.

Still, he adds, "I don't go down there to hurt anybody. I just go down there because I still love the system."