The Many Faces of Thomas the Tank Engine and Autism

An interesting study about children with Autism and how Thomas the Tank Engine helped them learn social emotions.

“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 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.

You can read more about their findings here: Thomas Study
Link to printable illustrations of Thomas faces: Faces of Thomas
Thanks, Christina, for sharing this interesting find!

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