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Children With Autism and Thomas the Tank Engine
Parents, educators, and therapists have witnessed anecdotal evidence of the special connection between the Thomas engine and children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) for many years. Where the typical child is drawn to boldly colored, cheerful little engines, children with autism display an unusually intense love for the characters. Therapists therefore learned to incorporate Thomas and his cohorts into their repertoire of therapeutic tools. In 2002 and 2007, the National Autistic Society of the United Kingdom (NAS) conducted studies to determine whether there really was 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 a special friendship, but not everyone buys it. Is there really a special bond between children with autism and Thomas?
A New York Post article written in 2000 titled “Autistic Kids Bond with Thomas” brought the observations of parents, therapists and teachers to the public. In 2002, a very limited study by the UK NAS suggested that there was indeed a special relationship between Thomas and children with autism spectrum disorders and gave reasons why. 81 parents of children with autism aged ten or younger were interviewed, and the aggregate findings showed that 57% of the children connected with Thomas before any other child character, remained interested in Thomas for two years longer than their neurotypical siblings and that 33% of autistic children had “obsessive” relationships with Thomas characters. Studies have found that the reasons for the unique connection between children with autism and the Thomas engine are:
1. Calm, clear narration of stories
2. Clear and exaggerated “signposts” that signal changes
3. Easy to follow, predictable stories
4. Calm backgrounds and landscapes
5. Bold colors, ease of character recognition
6. Exaggerated, easily readable facial expressions
7. Model accuracy
8. Predictable roles played by different characters
9. Collectable nature of the item
A 2007 study by the same organization expanded on 748 parents of children on the autism spectrum aged ten or younger, and found strikingly similar results.
Children with autism generally suffer from sensory processing disorders that make processing information taken from the world around them difficult and overwhelming. The main theme of the list of reasons why Thomas trains appeal to these children revolves around the simplicity of the characters and stories. Simple, uncluttered scenes, calm facial expressions, calm narration, 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 study and the reasons for Thomas’ appeal to an autistic child.
Skepticism and alternative explanations
While NAS UK readily admits that the results of their 2002 and 2007 studies are not scientifically valid, some insist that the results have no validity whatsoever. One blogger cites the incredibly similar statistics between the two studies as unlikely and therefore unreliable. Another criticism voiced is the apparently mutually beneficial relationship between UK-based NAS and Hit Entertainment, which owns the Thomas brand. Others, however, suggest that similar results between studies are a natural result of the social sciences and actually serve to strengthen the validity of the results. As for UK NAS and Hit Entertainment confirming; it could be argued that this is simply an example of organizations with common interests coming together for the benefit of the communities they serve. In 2009, Hit Entertainment and Autism Speaks mediated the relationship for similar reasons.
As for why autistic children like Thomas the Tank Engine, some suggest that it’s simply that autistic children like to line up toys and that trains are generally well-suited for this activity. Another thought is that boys, autistic or not, enjoy toys that they can break, knock over and fall over; trains can derail and crash off bridges. However, many parents report that their autistic children are particularly attracted to Thomas trains, not all trains, and that their children do not crash the trains, they just line them up.
Some critics insist that all of the child characters have simplistic facial expressions and emotions, making Thomas’s characters’ expressions no more autism-friendly than any of the other characters. However, proponents of the theory point out that the fact that the characters’ expressions are set rather than seen changing is unique to the Thomas series. The character is seen smiling, the camera pans away from the character and when the character is shown again he is frowning. The viewer does not see that change of expression from a smile to a 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 added 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 programs: “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 way of filming is soothing for my son. With simple music, scenery, non-animated faces and a single narrator, you can’t even compare how different Thomas is from other over-engineered corporate shows of today.”
When you listen to parents and therapists of children with ASD, it’s hard to deny that Thomas has a way of connecting and drawing out these children unlike any other children’s character.
How Thomas helps a child with ASD
The observations and testimonies of parents, therapists and educators of children with autism about Thomas the Tank Engine strongly support the findings of the NAS study. Many parents credit the Thomas characters with getting their children with ASD talking, helping them understand emotions and teaching them about colors and numbers. Explaining how Thomas helped their autistic daughter, one parent noted, “Our 22-year-old daughter is high-functioning autistic and still loves Thomas the Tank and friends. They think like her, in a concrete and clear way.
Thomas has been found to motivate children with ASD to continue working in therapy and school. Thomas toys and videos are therefore commonly used as stimuli by parents, therapists and teachers who work with children with autism. One parent explained, “We found Thomas’ figures extremely helpful during speech therapy. While the therapists sorted the shapes and the therapy toys were well-intentioned, our son did not talk or interact well with her. When she saw him rattle off the names of 40 different trains at age 2 ½, she began using my homemade flash cards and trains to promote his language and communication skills. Another parent commented, “From age 3 to 6, Thomas was our son’s only toy. Every holiday, birthday , rewards, incentives were based around Thomas.
A true blue friend
There is no doubt that the lovable characters of Thomas and friends are a hit with children of all kinds. However, the intensity of connection with 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 are so drawn to the Thomas characters, but perhaps the “why” doesn’t matter. What is important is that these children, who are some of the most difficult children to reach, connect with and teach, respond to Thomas. This makes him a true blue friend to them and to all those who work with them. Many agree that when it comes to an autistic child, Thomas is indeed a “really useful” engine.
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