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Children With Autism and Thomas the Tank Engine
For many years, parents, educators, and therapists have witnessed anecdotal evidence of a special connection between Thomas the Tank Engine and children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). While the typical child is drawn to boldly colorful, fun little engines, children with autism show an unusually intense love for the characters. Therefore, therapists have learned to incorporate Thomas and his groups into their repertoire of therapeutic tools. In 2002 and 2007, the UK’s National Autistic Society (NAS) conducted research to determine whether there really was a special connection between autistic children and Thomas the Tank Engine, and if so, why. The results of these studies provided a surprisingly long list of reasons for special friendships, but not everyone is buying it. Is there really a special bond between children with autism and Thomas?
A 2000 New York Post article titled “Autistic Kids Bond with Thomas” revealed observations from parents, therapists and teachers. 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 autistic children aged ten or younger were surveyed, and the summary results showed that 57% of the children related to Thomas before any other child character, that they were interested in Thomas two years longer than their neurotypical siblings, and that 33% children with autism had an “obsessive” relationship with Thomas’ characters. Research has identified the reasons for the unique relationship between children with autism and Thomas the Tank Engine:
1. Calm, clear storytelling
2. Clear and exaggerated “road signs” signaling change
3. Easy to follow, predictable storylines
4. Still backgrounds and landscapes
5. Bold colors, ease of character recognition
6. Exaggerated, easy to read facial expression
7. Accuracy of models
8. Anticipated roles of different characters
9. Collectability of items
A 2007 study by the same organization expanded to include 748 parents of children on the autism spectrum aged ten or younger and reached surprisingly similar results.
Children with autism usually suffer from sensory processing disorders that make it difficult and difficult to process information from the world around them. The main theme in this list of reasons why kids are attracted to Thomas Trains revolves around the simplicity of the characters and stories. Simple, uncluttered landscapes, still facial expressions, calm narration, bold primary colors and predictable plots help limit the sensory impact of toys, books and videos. For many, these explanations are reasonable and acceptable. However, others disagree with the validity of the research and the reasons behind Thomas’ attraction to the autistic child.
Skepticism and alternative explanations
Although the UK NAS is happy to admit that the results of their 2002 and 2007 studies are not scientifically sound, some insist that the results are not valid. One blogger cites the incredibly similar statistics between the two studies as unlikely and therefore unreliable. Another criticism leveled was the apparently mutually beneficial relationship between the UK’s NAS and Hit Entertainment, which owns the Thomas brand. However, others point out 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 the UK NAS and Hit Entertainment endorsement; it can 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 formed a relationship for similar reasons.
As for why autistic children love Thomas the Tank Engine, some suggest that autistic children simply like to arrange toys and that trains in general lend themselves well to this activity. Another thought is that little boys, autistic or not, enjoy toys that can be bumped, bumped and dropped; trains can derail and fall off bridges. However, many parents report that their autistic children are attracted to the Thomas brand trains, not all trains, and that their children do not run into each other on the trains, but only stand in line.
Some critics insist that all the child characters have simplistic facial expressions and emotions, making Thomas’ character expressions less autism-friendly than any other character. However, theorists point out that the characters’ expressions, which are set and not caught when they change, are 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 witness this change of expression from a smile to a frown. It lightens the emotions beyond other children’s shows. Since children with autism have difficulty reading facial expressions and identifying the emotions they represent, this additional simplification makes it easier for them to follow Thomas’ plot. One parent made the following observation about Thomas and Friends and how it differs from other children’s programs: “Most children’s shows today are not simple in themselves. They are unnecessarily complicated and usually loud, bright and obnoxious. Thomas shows are so simple . the low-tech way of filming is soothing to my son. With simple music, scenery, no animated faces and a single narrator, you can’t even compare how different Thomas is from other thoughtful corporate shows of today.”
Listening to parents and therapists of children with ASD, it’s hard to deny that Thomas has a way of connecting and engaging these children unlike other children’s characters.
How Thomas helps an ASD child
Observations and testimonies from parents, therapists and educators of children with autism about Thomas the Tank Engine strongly support the results of NAS research. Many parents credit Thomas’ characters with encouraging their ASD children to talk, 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 a high-functioning autistic person, and she still loves Thomas the Tank and friends. They think like her, concretely and clearly.
Thomas has been found to motivate ASD children to continue working in therapy and 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’ characters extremely helpful during speech therapy. Even though the therapists made the sorters and the therapy toys were well-intentioned, our son didn’t talk too well with him. When she saw him rattle off 40 people’s names. 2½ At the age of 10, she started using my homemade flash cards and trains to encourage his language and communication skills. Another parent commented, “From the ages of 3 to 6, Thomas was our son’s only toy. All holidays, birthdays, awards and incentives were based on Thomas.
A true blue friend
There is no doubt that the lovable characters of Thomas and friends are popular with all kinds of children. However, the intensity of connection with characters in 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 matters is that these children, who are the most difficult to reach, reach and teach, respond to Thomas. This makes him a true blue friend to them and all those who work with them. Many agree that when it comes to an autistic child, Thomas is indeed a “very useful” engine.
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