Parents, educators, and therapists have witnessed anecdotal evidence of a special connection between Thomas the Tank Engine and children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) for many years. Where the typical child is drawn to the boldly-colored, cheerful little engines, children with autism show an unusually intense love of the characters. Therapists have therefore learned to incorporate Thomas and his cohorts into their repertoire of therapy tools. In 2002 and 2007, the UK National Autistic Society (NAS) conducted studies to determine if there truly 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 is buying it. Is there truly a special bond to be found between children with autism and Thomas?
A New York Post article written in 2000 titled “Autistic Kids Make Connection with Thomas” brought the observations of parents, therapists and teachers to public light. In 2002, a very limited study conducted by the UK NAS suggested that there indeed exists a special relationship between Thomas and children with autism spectrum disorders and provided reasons why. Eighty-one parents of children with autism aged ten or younger were interviewed and the summary findings showed that 57% of the children connected with Thomas before any other children’s character, that they stayed interested in Thomas two years longer than their neuro-typical siblings and that 33% of the autistic children had “obsessive” relationships with Thomas characters. The reasons for the unique relationship between children with autism and Thomas the Tank Engine were determined by the studies to be:
1. Calm, clear narration of the stories
2. Clear and exaggerated “signposts” to signal changes
3. Easy to follow, predictable storylines
4. Still backgrounds and scenery
5. Bold colors, ease of recognition of characters
6. Exaggerated, easy to read facial expressions
7. Accuracy of the models
8. Predictable roles played by the various characters
9. Collectible nature of the objects
The 2007 study conducted by the same organization was expanded to 748 parents with children on the autism spectrum aged ten or younger, and reached strikingly similar results.
Children with autism generally suffer from sensory processing disorder which makes processing information taken in from the world around them difficult and overwhelming. The main theme to the list of reasons for the attraction to Thomas trains for these children revolves around the simplicity of the characters and stories. Simple, uncluttered sceneries, still facial expressions, calm narration, bold primary colors, and predictable storylines all help to limit the sensory impact of the 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 the attraction of Thomas to the autistic child.
Skepticism and Alternative Explanations
While the UK NAS readily admits that the results of their 2002 and 2007 studies are not scientifically valid, some insist that the results lack any validity. One blogger cites the incredibly similar statistics between the two studies as unlikely and therefore unreliable. Another criticism expressed was the apparently mutually beneficial relationship between the UK NAS and Hit Entertainment who owns the Thomas brand. Others, however, suggest that the similar results between the studies are a natural result of social science and actually serve to strengthen the validity of the results. As for the corroboration of the 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 brokered a relationship for similar reasons.
As for why children with autism love Thomas the Tank Engine, some suggest it is simply that children with autism love lining up toys, and that trains in general are well-suited to this activity. Another thought is that little boys, autistic or not, enjoy toys they can smash, crash and make fall; trains can be derailed and topple off bridges. However, many parents report that their autistic children are drawn specifically to the 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 children’s characters have simplistic facial expressions and emotions, making Thomas characters’ expressions no more autism friendly than any other characters. However, proponents of the theory point out that the characters’ expressions being set and not seen as they change is unique of the Thomas series. A character is seen smiling, the camera cuts away from the character and when the character is shown again he is frowning. The viewer does not witness that shift in the expression from smile to frown. This simplifies the emotions beyond other children’s shows. Since children with autism struggle with reading facial expressions and identifying the emotions they reflect, this additional simplification makes it easier for them to follow the Thomas storylines. One parent made this observation about Thomas and Friends and how it differs from other children’s programming: “Most children’s shows today aren’t simple in themselves. They are needlessly complex, and usually loud, bright and obnoxious. Thomas shows are so simple. The low-tech way of filming is soothing to my son. With the simple music, sets, not-animated faces and single narrator, you cannot even compare how different Thomas is to other over-thought out corporate shows of today.”
When listening to the parents and therapists of ASD children, it is hard to deny that Thomas has a way of connecting and drawing out these children unlike any other children’s characters.
How Thomas helps the ASD Child
The observations and testimonies of parents, therapists and educators of children with autism regarding Thomas the Tank Engine strongly support the NAS studies’ findings. Many parents credit the Thomas characters for getting their ASD children talking, helping them understand emotions and teaching them about colors and numbers. In explaining how Thomas helped their autistic daughter, one parent remarked: “Our 22 year old daughter is a high functioning autistic and she still loves Thomas the Tank and Friends. They think like her, in concrete and clear ways.
Thomas has been found to motivate ASD children to keep working in therapy and school. The Thomas toys and videos are therefore commonly used as incentives by parents, therapists and teachers who work with children with autism. One parent explained, “We found Thomas characters extremely helpful during speech therapy. While the therapists shape sorters and therapy toys were well-intentioned, our son was not talking or relating very well to her. When she saw him rattle off the names of 40 different trains at age 2 ½, she started to use my homemade flash cards and the trains to promote his language and communication skills. Another parent commented, “From the ages 3 to 6, Thomas was our son’s only toy. All holidays, birthdays, rewards, incentives were based around Thomas.
A True Blue Friend
There is no doubt that the lovable Thomas and Friends characters are a hit with children of all types. However, the intensity of the connection to the characters for children on the autism spectrum appears to be unique in many ways. Researchers, parents and therapists have offered many ideas as to why these children as so drawn to the Thomas characters, but perhaps the “why” is not important. What is important is that these children, who are some of the hardest children to reach, to connect with and to teach, are responding to Thomas. That makes him a true blue friend of theirs and all of those working with them. Many agree that when it comes to the autistic child, Thomas is truly a “really useful” engine.