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Children With Autism and Thomas the Tank Engine

For many years, parents, educators, and therapists have witnessed anecdotal evidence of a special connection between Thomas the Tank Engine and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Where the typical child is drawn to the boldly colored, cheerful little motorbikes, children with autism display an unusually intense love of character. Therapists have therefore learned to incorporate Thomas and his groups into their repertoire of therapeutic tools. In 2002 and 2007, the UK’s National Autistic Society (NAS) conducted studies to determine whether there really was a special relationship between autistic children and Thomas the Tank Engine, and if so, why. The results of these studies provided a surprisingly long list of reasons for a special friendship, but not everyone buys it. Is there really a special bond between autistic children and Thomas?

The research

A 2000 New York Post article entitled “Autistic Kids Connection with Thomas” published the observations of parents, therapists and teachers. In 2002, a very limited study conducted by the UK NAS suggested that there was indeed a special relationship between Thomas and children with autism spectrum disorder, and explained why. Eighty-one parents of autistic children aged ten and younger were interviewed, and the summary results showed that 57% of the children connected with Thomas before any other child character, that they were interested in Thomas two years longer than their neurotypical siblings, and that the autistic 33% of children had an “obsessive” relationship with Thomas characters. The reasons for the unique relationship between children with autism and Thomas the Tank Engine have been identified by studies as follows:

1. Calm, clear telling of stories

2. Bright and exaggerated “signposts” to indicate changes

3. Easy-to-follow, predictable storylines

4. Static backgrounds and landscapes

5. Bold colors, easy recognition of characters

6. Exaggerated, easy-to-read facial expressions

7. Accuracy of the models

8. Predictable roles played by various characters

9. Collectable nature of the items

A 2007 study by the same organization was extended to 748 parents of autistic children age 10 and younger and found surprisingly similar results.

Children with autism usually suffer from a sensory processing disorder that makes it difficult and overwhelming to process information from the world around them. The main theme of this list of reasons to gravitate towards Thomas trains revolves around the simplicity of the characters and stories for these children. Simple, uncluttered sets, still facial expressions, calm narration, bold primary colors, and predictable storylines all help limit the sensory impact of games, books, and videos. For many, these explanations are reasonable and acceptable. However, others disagree with the validity of the studies and the reasons behind Thomas’ attraction to the autistic child.

Skepticism and alternative explanations

While the British NAS readily admits that the results of their 2002 and 2007 studies are not scientifically valid, some insist that the results are not valid. One blogger calls the incredibly similar statistics between the two studies unlikely and therefore unreliable. Another criticism was the apparently mutually beneficial relationship between UK NAS and Hit Entertainment, which owns the Thomas brand. However, others suggest that similar results between studies are a natural result of social science and actually serve to strengthen the validity of the results. As for the confirmation of UK NAS and Hit Entertainment; it could be argued that this is simply an example of common interest organizations coming together for the benefit of the communities they serve. In 2009, Hit Entertainment and Autism Speaks brokered a relationship for similar reasons.

As for why autistic children love Thomas the Tank Engine, some suggest that children with autism like to line up toys, and trains tend to lend themselves well to this activity. Another thought is that little boys, autistic or not, enjoy toys that they can smash, smash, and drop; trains can derail and fall off bridges. However, many parents report that their autistic children are specifically drawn to Thomas-branded trains, not all trains, and that their children do not collide with the trains, they just line them up.

Some critics insist that the facial expressions and emotions of all child characters are simplistic, so the facial expressions of Thomas’ characters are no more autistic-friendly than any other character. However, proponents of the theory point out that the characters’ manifestations are set and not seen as they change, which is unique to the Thomas series. We see a character smiling, the camera cuts away from the character, and when the character reappears, he is frowning. The viewer does not see it as a change from a smile to a frown. It simplifies the emotions beyond other children’s shows. Since children with autism struggle to read facial expressions and identify the emotions they reflect, this further simplification makes it easier for them to follow Thomas’ stories. One parent made this observation about Thomas and Friends and how it differs from other children’s shows: “Most children’s shows today are not inherently simple. They are unnecessarily complex and usually loud and bright and obnoxious. Thomas shows are so simple. The low-tech filming puts my son at ease. With simple music, sets, non-animated faces and no narrator, there’s no comparing how different Thomas is from today’s over-the-top corporate shows.”

Listening to parents and therapists of children with ASD, it’s hard to deny that Thomas has a way of connecting and drawing these children unlike other child characters.

How Thomas helps the ASD child

The observations and testimonies of parents, therapists and educators of children with autism about Thomas the Tank Engine strongly support the results of the NAS studies. Many parents credit Thomas characters with getting their children with ASD talking, helping them understand emotions, and teaching them colors and numbers. When explaining how Thomas helped their autistic daughter, one parent commented, “Our 22-year-old daughter has high-functioning autism and still loves Thomas the Tank and his 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 games and videos are commonly used as stimuli by parents, therapists and teachers who work with children with autism. One parent explained, “We found the Thomas characters extremely helpful during speech therapy. While the therapists designed the sorters and therapy games with good intentions, our son didn’t speak or communicate very well. When he saw him rattle off 40 names . When he was 2 1/2 years old, he started using my homemade flash cards and trains to develop his language and communication skills. Another parent said, “From 3 to 6 years old, Thomas was our son’s only toy. All holidays, birthdays, rewards and incentives are built around Thomas.

A true blue friend

There is no doubt that the lovable Thomas and friends characters are favorites of all kinds of children. However, the intensity of the relationship with the characters of children on the autism spectrum seems unique in many ways. Researchers, parents, and therapists have offered many ideas as to why these children are so drawn to Thomas figures, but perhaps the “why” is not important. What is important is that these children, who are the hardest to reach, connect and teach, respond to Thomas. This makes him a true blue friend of theirs and a true friend of those who work with them. Many agree that when it comes to the autistic child, Thomas is indeed a “really useful” engine.

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