Thomas the Tank Engine and Autism Connection

In a blog called "Oz and Ends," a blogger named J.L. Bell comments on studies and news about a connection between Thomas Tank Engine and autism. Here's how the blog describes the studies:

In April 2007, the NAS conducted a new survey with support from HIT Entertainment, producers and rights-owners of Thomas & Friends. This survey had a larger sample: 748 U.K. parents of children under 10 with autism, the CBC reports. (The Daily Mail says 750, but thats close enough for a tabloid.) Here are the top findings from the 2002 report:

  • Children on the autism spectrum associate with Thomas before any other childrens character (57%).
  • These children maintain their association with Thomas longer than for other characters, commonly two years longer than their typically developing siblings.

The latest report echoes the earlier findings with uncanny precision.

  • 58% of parents reported that Thomas & Friends was the first childrens character their child liked.
  • Almost 39% of parents reported that their childs interest in Thomas & Friends lasted over two years longer than siblings interest in the character.

...So a survey of 81 parents in 2001 and a survey of 748 parents in 2007 produce the same answer to the same question within a single percentage point? Is that how social science usually works?...

Of course, the NAS doesnt claim that these surveys are scientifically valid. Instead, there are signs on the groups website of a mutually beneficial publicity relationship between it and HIT Entertainment, owners of the Thomas brand.

Though I certainly understand Bell's skepticism, it seems to me that, in fact, Thomas does attract kids with autism to an extraordinary degree. But I disagree with the study relative to WHY our kids love Thomas so much.

The study suggests that children with autism are engaged by the simple emotions on the faces of the characters. I'm not buying it. In fact, MOST TV and toys intended for preschoolers is focused on simple emotions and exaggerated facial expressions and body language. You don't need an antiquated steam engine to show "I am sad" - it's in every "educational" show on the air.

My personal belief is that Thomas is especially interesting to kids with autism because (1) the trains do a great deal of falling, crashing, and smashing - something that appeals to our kids and is tough to find on other PBS or Disney programs for preschoolers and (2) the toy trains line up beautifully, and our kids love to line things up. They can even be lined up according to color, something that can be very soothing to kids with autism.

Frankly, the emotional lives of the characters in the Thomas series are hardly likely to attract the attention of contemporary kids with autism. Developed by an English vicar in the 1920's, these characters experience class wars (lower class freight cars versus upper class steam engines) and anachronistic dangers (being covered in coal dust). And while kids from the UK might empathize with the engines' pride and anxiety because of an impending visit from the queen, most American children just wouldn't get it.

Is your child a Thomas lover? If so, please share your experiences. You might also enjoy these ideas for using Thomas the Tank Engine as a teaching tool!.

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