Parents, educators, and therapists have been witnessing anecdotal evidence of a special connection between Thomas the Tank Engine and children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) for many years. While the typical child is drawn to brightly colored, cheerful little engines, children with autism show an unusually intense love for the characters. Therefore, therapists have learned to incorporate Thomas and his companions into their repertoire of therapy tools. In 2002 and 2007, the UK’s National Autism Society (NAS) conducted studies to determine if there really is a special connection between children with autism and Thomas the Tank Engine, and if so, why. The results of these studies provided a surprisingly long list of reasons for the special friendship, but not everyone believes it. Is there really a special bond between children with autism and Thomas?
A New York Post article written in 2000 titled “Autistic Kids Connect with Thomas” brought observations from parents, therapists, and teachers to the fore. In 2002, a very limited study by the UK NAS suggested that there is in fact a special relationship between Thomas and children with autism spectrum disorders and explained why. 81 parents of children with autism aged ten and under were interviewed and the summary findings showed that 57% of the children connected with Thomas earlier than any other child character, remained interested in Thomas two years longer than their neurotypical siblings and that 33% of autistic children had “obsessive” relationships with Thomas characters. Studies have determined that the reasons for the unique relationship between children with autism and Thomas the Tank Engine are:
1. Calm and clear narration of the stories
2. Clear and exaggerated “signals” to indicate changes
3. Easy to follow and predictable stories
4. Fixed Backgrounds and Stages
5. Bold colors, easy to recognize characters
6. Easy to read exaggerated facial expressions
7. Accuracy of the models
8. Predictable roles played by the different characters.
9. Collectible character of objects
The 2007 study by the same organization was expanded to 748 parents of children on the autism spectrum aged ten or younger and achieved surprisingly similar results.
Children with autism typically suffer from a sensory processing disorder that makes processing information from the world around them difficult and overwhelming. The main theme of the list of reasons for these children’s attraction to Thomas trains revolves around the simplicity of the characters and stories. Simple, uncluttered settings, calm facial expressions, calm storytelling, bold primary colors, and predictable stories help limit the sensory impact of toys, books, and videos. For many, these explanations are reasonable and acceptable. Others, however, disagree with the validity of the studies and the reasons for Thomas’s attraction to the autistic boy.
Skepticism and alternative explanations
While the UK NAS admits that the results of its 2002 and 2007 studies are not scientifically valid, some insist that the results lack validity. One blogger cites the incredibly similar statistics between the two studies as unlikely and therefore unreliable. Another criticism voiced was the seemingly mutually beneficial relationship between the UK NAS and Hit Entertainment, which owns the Thomas brand. Others, however, suggest that similar results across studies are a natural outcome of the social sciences and actually serve to strengthen the validity of the results. Regarding the corroboration of UK NAS and Hit Entertainment; it can be argued that this is simply an example of organizations with common interests coming together for the good of the communities they serve. In 2009, Hit Entertainment and Autism Speaks negotiated a relationship for similar reasons.
As for why children with autism love Thomas the Tank Engine, some suggest that it is simply that children with autism love to line up toys, and that trains in general are well suited to this activity. Another thought is that young children, autistic or not, enjoy toys that they can break, bump, and knock over; trains can derail and fall off bridges. However, many parents report that their autistic children are specifically attracted to Thomas brand trains, not all trains, and that their children do not crash the trains, but only line them up.
Some critics insist that all the child characters have simplistic facial expressions and emotions, making the expressions of the Thomas characters no more autism-friendly than any other characters. However, the propositions of the theory point out that the characters’ expressions being set and unseen as they change are unique to the Thomas series. A character is seen smiling, the camera pans away from the character, and when the character is shown again, he frowns. The viewer does not witness that change in expression from smile to frown. This simplifies the emotions beyond other children’s shows. Since children with autism have difficulty reading facial expressions and identifying the emotions they reflect, this additional simplification makes it easier for them to follow Thomas’s stories. One parent made this observation about Thomas and Friends and how it differs from other children’s programming: “Most children’s programming today is not simple in itself. It is unnecessarily complex and often noisy, bright and nasty. Thomas’s shows are so simple. The low-tech way of filming is relaxing for my son. With the simple music, the sets, the non-animated faces, and the unique narrator, you can’t even compare how different they it’s Thomas of today’s other overthinking corporate shows.”
Listening to parents and therapists of children with ASD, it’s hard to deny that Thomas has a way of connecting with and engaging with these children unlike any other children’s character.
How Thomas helps the boy with ASD
Observations and testimonials from parents, therapists, and educators of children with autism regarding Thomas the Tank Engine strongly support the findings of the NAS studies. Many parents credit the Thomas characters for getting their children with ASDs to talk, helping them understand emotions, and teaching them about colors and numbers. Explaining how Thomas helped his autistic daughter, one parent commented, “Our 22-year-old daughter is a high-functioning autistic girl and she still loves Thomas the Tank and Friends. They think like her, concretely and clearly.”
Thomas has been found to motivate children with ASD to continue working in therapy and school. Therefore, Thomas toys and videos are commonly used as incentives by parents, therapists, and teachers working with children with autism. One parent explained: “We found the Thomas characters extremely helpful during speech therapy. While the shape-sorting therapists and therapy toys were well-intentioned, our son didn’t talk or relate to her very well. saw me recite the names of 40 different trains at age 2 1/2, began using my homemade flashcards and the trains to promote his language and communication skills Another parent commented, “From the age of 3 to 6, Thomas was the only toy of our son. All vacations, birthdays, rewards and incentives were based on Thomas.
a true blue friend
There’s no doubt that the lovable Thomas & Friends characters are a hit with kids of all kinds. However, the intensity of the connection with the characters of children with autism seems to be unique in many ways. Researchers, parents, and therapists have offered many ideas as to why these children are so drawn to the Thomas characters, but perhaps the “why” isn’t important. What’s important is that these kids, who are some of the hardest kids to reach, connect with, and teach, are responding to Thomas. That makes him a true blue friend to them and everyone who works with them. Many agree that when it comes to the autistic child, Thomas really is a “really useful” engine.