Parents, educators, and therapists have witnessed anecdotal evidence of a special connection between Thomas the Tank Engine and children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) for many years. Where the typical child is drawn to cheery, boldly colored little engines, children with autism display an unusually intense love for characters. Thus, therapists have learned to incorporate Thomas and his cohorts into their repertoire of therapeutic 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 agrees. Is there really a special bond between children with autism and Thomas?
A New York Post article written in 2000 titled “Autistic Children Connect with Thomas” brought to light the observations of parents, therapists and teachers. In 2002, a very limited study by NAS UK suggested that there is indeed a special relationship between Thomas and children with autism spectrum disorders and provided the reasons. Eighty-one parents of children with autism aged ten years or younger were interviewed and the summary findings showed that 57% of the children related to Thomas before any other child’s character, who remained interested in Thomas for two more years than their neuro-typical siblings and that 33% of autistic children had “obsessive” relationships with Thomas’ characters. Studies determined that the reasons for the unique relationship between children with autism and Thomas the Tank Engine are:
1. Clear and calm narration of stories.
2. Clear and exaggerated “signals” to signal changes
3. Easy-to-follow and predictable plots
4. Still backgrounds and landscapes
5. Striking colors, easy to recognize characters.
6. Exaggerated, easy-to-read facial expressions
7. Accuracy of the models
8. Predictable roles of the different characters.
9. Collectible nature of objects.
The 2007 study by the same organization was expanded to 748 parents with children on the autism spectrum aged 10 years or younger, and achieved strikingly similar results.
Children with autism generally suffer from a sensory processing disorder that makes processing information gleaned from the world around them difficult and overwhelming. The main theme of the list of reasons for the attraction to Thomas trains for these children revolves around the simplicity of the characters and the stories. Simple, uncluttered landscapes, immobile 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 child.
Skepticism and alternative explanations
While the UK NAS readily admits that the results of its 2002 and 2007 studies are not scientifically valid, some insist the results are invalid. 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, owner of the Thomas brand. Others, however, suggest that similar results across studies are a natural result of the social sciences and actually serve to strengthen the validity of the results. As for the UK NAS and Hit Entertainment corroboration; It can be argued that this is simply one 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 are generally suitable for this activity. Another thought is that young children, autistic or not, enjoy toys that can smash, crash, and knock over; trains can derail and bring down bridges. However, many parents report that their autistic children are specifically drawn to Thomas brand trains, not all trains, and that their children do not crash the trains, they just line them up.
Some critics insist that all the children’s characters have simplistic facial expressions and emotions, making the expressions of Thomas’ characters no more autism-friendly than any other character. However, proponents of the theory point out that character expressions that are set and not seen as they change is unique to the Thomas series. A character is seen smiling, the camera moves away from the character, and when the character is shown again he is frowning. The viewer does not witness that change in expression from smile to frown. This simplifies emotions beyond other children’s programs. 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’ stories. One parent made this observation about Thomas and his friends and how it differs from other children’s programming: “Most children’s programs today are not simple in themselves. They are unnecessarily complex and often noisy. Bright and unpleasant. Thomas’s shows are very simple. The low-tech way of filming is comforting to my son. With the simple music, the settings, the non-animated faces, and the unique storyteller, you can’t even compare how different it is. It’s Thomas with other over-thought corporate programs today. “
When listening to parents and therapists of children with ASD, it is hard to deny that Thomas has a way of connecting and engaging these children like no other childhood character.
How Thomas Helps the Child 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 Thomas’ characters for making their children with ASD talk, helping them understand emotions, and teaching them about colors and numbers. In explaining how Thomas helped his autistic daughter, one parent commented, “Our 22-year-old daughter is a high-functioning autistic and she 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 at school. Therefore, Thomas’ toys and videos are commonly used as incentives by parents, therapists, and teachers who work with children with autism. One parent explained: “We found Thomas’s characters extremely helpful during speech therapy. While the therapists, shape sorters, and therapy toys were well-meaning, our son didn’t speak or relate very well. With her. When she saw him recite the names of 40 different trains at age 2 1/2, she started using my homemade flashcards and trains to promote her language and communication skills. Another parent commented, “3 to 3 years old. 6 year old Thomas was our son’s only toy. All holidays, birthdays, rewards and incentives were based on Thomas.
A true blue friend
There is no question that the lovable characters of Thomas and his friends are a hit with children of all stripes. However, the intensity of the connection to the characters of children on the autism spectrum appears to be unique in many ways. Researchers, parents, and therapists have offered many insights into why these children are so drawn to Thomas’ characters, but perhaps the “why” is not important. What’s important is that these kids, who are some of the hardest kids to reach, connect 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 is truly a “really helpful” motor.