Millions of children around the world love Thomas the Tank Engine. Parents everywhere have watched their children learn, grow and have fun with this cheeky little blue engine.
For many children with autistic spectrum disorders, Thomas plays an even more important role. A 2002 study by the National Autistic Society in the UK shows that Thomas the Tank Engine helps break through the barriers of many children with autism and Asperger syndrome.
Parents of children with ASD have known for years that Thomas and his friends have special value to their children. The report confirms this anecdotal evidence, stating that children with ASD associate far more strongly with Thomas the Tank Engine than with other children's characters. Some parents of children with ASD have reported leaps of emotion, imagination and symbolic play that were unimaginable before the child's relationship with Thomas.
Why Thomas the Tank Engine?
Children with ASD seem to be particularly fascinated with Thomas. A number of reasons have been proposed to explain this special relationship.
- Children with autism are often attracted to objects arranged in lines (like cars on a train), as well as spinning objects and wheels.
- Thomas and his friends have bold, easily-to-recognize colors.
- Thomas and the other characters have friendly faces, often with exaggerated expressions. In the videos, the expressions are set for some time and are often accompanied by simple narration explaining the emotion ("Thomas was sad."), allowing children to identify the feelings and expressions.
- The narration of the videos is calm and clear, and changes are 'signposted' clearly.
- The stories are relatively short (less than five minutes) and easy to follow. Things that go wrong are usually resolved by the end of the episode.
- The unique stop-action photography of the videos allows the background and scenery to remain still, allowing for greater focus on the "big picture" with less distraction.
- The characters play predictable roles.
- Children with ASD often have the need to identify, list, collect and create lines with favorite objects. Thomas is especially suitable for these activities.
Thomas is a True-Blue Friend
Many children with ASD have a hard time making and maintaining friendships. Thomas and the other characters can serve as substitute friends in a world with few friends.
Parents of children with autism and related disorders often mention that their children find Thomas calming and comforting, rather like a 'security blanket'. Children often like to have their trains with them at all times. The sound of the videos playing in the background can have a comforting effect while the child is engaged in other activities. This is especially important for children with ASD, where the world is often frightening beyond their understanding.
Learning with Thomas
Thomas often serves as a 'gateway to learning' for children with ASD. The interest in Thomas provides children with the motivation and interest to try new things. For example, a child who is not otherwise interested in the computer will eagerly learn computer skills when introduced to a Thomas game.
Thomas also often plays an important role in learning color recognition, numbers and language skills. Because language is such an obstacle for many children with ASD, Thomas' influence on these skills is especially beneficial.
Parents report children echoing entire chunks of Thomas videos. (This use of language, called echolalia, is common in children with autism.) Over time, many children move to using Thomas language in real-life situations. Parents have reported great success in using Thomas language with their children, such as "Stop, the signal is up," or "Apply the brakes".
Emotional and Social Development
In the videos, Thomas and the other characters have exaggerated facial expressions, which are often set for a relatively long period of time. This allows the child with ASD to relate to the emotions, expressions and feelings of the characters. This is especially valuable for children who have difficulty understanding people and their thoughts and feelings. You can see some examples of Thomas' facial expressions on our Many Faces of Thomas page.
Perhaps the best way to understand the profound effects Thomas the Tank Engine has had on children with autism is to read the accounts first-hand. Read the stories that some readers have sent to us. We would love to hear about your experiences as well. Please drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your stories about Thomas and children with ASD.
Hannah Brown, "Autistic Kids Make Connection with Thomas," New York Post, July 26, 2000. Page 57.
The National Autistic Society, London, England. "Do children with autism spectrum disorders have a special relationship with Thomas the Tank Engine and, if so, why?" Research undertaken by Aidan Prior Communications. February, 2002. www.nas.org.uk