Father spends years designing, building miniature train for autistic son

By Chen Ziyan | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-04-21 08:30
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A father in Southwest China's Chongqing spent eight years building a real miniature steam train for his autistic son, CCTV News reported on Wednesday.

The son, named Hanghang, was diagnosed with autism at 3. After completing primary school, he was forced to drop out because he couldn't catch up in classes and also had difficulty communicating with other children his age.

As his parents have day jobs, Hanghang spent most of his time at home staring at the TV screen with his grandmother. During that time, he developed a fascination for miniature trains in animated programs. He even drew trains on the walls of his family's yard and slept with toy trains close at hand.

Seeing his son's obsession, Li Jiawei, an electrician, had an idea: to build a real miniature train for his son.

So whenever he had free time, Li would closely observe the exterior structure and internal components of steam trains and asked professionals at railway stations about the machinery.

Later, Li was given a book from 1984 called "Steam Locomotives". It was a gift from a retired steam train driver. He spent three months teaching himself how to draw blueprints using software, and standardize and size the required parts for a locomotive.

Because the process was complex and the demand low, factories were unwilling to produce parts for a scaled-down version of the locomotive. Li had no choice but to make the parts himself. He learned mechanical transmission and kinetic principles, and as he persisted in building the locomotive the difficulties only increased, and the end seemed nowhere in sight.

At times he thought about giving up, but he chose to persist for the sake of his son. "I must give my son something through which he can feel his father truly loves him," Li said.

To have enough space to test the train, Li moved out of his urban home and rented a small house in a rural village, where he laid down tracks and set up a makeshift workshop. Over eight years, Li spent more than 200,000 yuan ($29,042) testing the machine more than a thousand times. He replaced six boilers, and finally built the first miniature locomotive for his son in 2021.

But Li did not stop there. To make the train more powerful, he continued to improve it, and thus came locomotives two, three and beyond.

As he continued work to improve the train, Li noticed Hanghang also changed.

"My son was being healed little by little. He was no longer afraid of strangers and becoming more cheerful and lively," Li recalled.

Now, Li has made a total of eight miniature steam locomotives, and Hanghang has become a skilled "conductor." The 15-year-old often confidently introduces his beloved miniature trains to others.

Thanks to his inspiring story, Hanghang got a job at a tourism site near his father's hometown driving his miniature train, which could carry 20 to 30 tourists at a time through the beautiful scenery. Train tickets have become Hanghang's "income", but it is free for children with disabilities. "I hope society can be more tolerant and caring toward children with autism. I hope while my son lives a happy life, he can also bring happiness to others," Li said.

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