Why Do Autistic People Love Thomas the Tank Engine?

Thomas the Tank Engine and his locomotive companions have become iconic figures in one of the world’s most extensive preschool toy and television franchises. This beloved brand generates over $1 billion in annual retail sales. Notably, it has garnered a particularly dedicated following among individuals on the autism spectrum.

The straightforward narratives and distinct facial expressions of Thomas the Tank Engine characters have endeared them to autistic children, as highlighted by a study conducted by the U.K. National Autistic Society. Originally penned in 1943 by Rev. Wilbert Vere Awdry, Thomas the Tank Engine remains a timeless favourite among children under four, especially boys with a passion for trains.

An April 2007 survey conducted by the National Autistic Society revealed that 58% of parents identified Thomas as their child’s first preferred children’s character, outshining other options. While many children first encounter Thomas & Friends through the television series, they often transition to engaging with Thomas toys, videos, and books.

For autistic children, who may exhibit restricted interests, Thomas-related play frequently emerges as a favourite activity. Many children watch the videos repeatedly and recreate entire scenes, complete with dialogue, using the toys.

According to the NAS survey, a parent of a nine-year-old shared, “Thomas & Friends is 100 per cent responsible for getting him talking. Thomas was his life.” Approximately a third of parents observed that their children learned to recognize basic facial expressions from the characters, as each character’s emotions are clearly depicted as happy, sad, or angry.

Understanding human expressions can be challenging for autistic children. Another parent remarked,”He definitely uses the train faces to distinguish between different emotions. Thomas has helped him to get into the world of not just language but also how people feel.”

Parents also attributed the characters to enhancing their children’s grasp of colours, numbers, and language skills. The comforting world of Thomas & Friends, where characters behave predictably, has a calming effect on many autistic children. In fact, 54% of parents noted that the stories contributed to their child’s sense of security.

Interestingly, children with autism continue to enjoy Thomas stories and characters for up to two years longer than their siblings who aren’t autistic. The survey, which included responses from parents of  autistic children under 10, sheds light on this unique connection.

The 2007 survey conducted by the National Autism Society (NAS) received support from HIT Entertainment, the former rights holders of Thomas & Friends (now owned by Mattel). This study built upon a smaller survey released by NAS in 2002. The 2007 survey collected responses from 748 UK parents of autistic children under the age of 10, and its findings closely mirrored those of the 2002 survey.

Key findings from the 2002 report were:

  • 57% of children on the autism spectrum preferred Thomas over other characters.
  • These children maintained their interest in Thomas for approximately two years longer than their typically developing siblings.

The 2007 report confirmed these findings with almost identical percentages. However, the consistency between the 2002 and 2007 surveys raises questions about their reliability.

NAS does not present these surveys as scientifically rigorous studies. Their website indicates a collaborative relationship with HIT Entertainment, the brand owners of Thomas, suggesting a mutually beneficial publicity arrangement.

HIT Entertainment has allowed NAS to use their characters for fundraising and has introduced new characters like Mavis and Percy to enhance collectability.

In 2022, Mattel introduced it’s first autistic character, Bruno the Brake Car, voiced by autistic child actor Elliott Garcia.

Additionally, NAS has endorsed various products, including Thomas toys and videos, from corporate sponsors such as Tomy, Duplo, Lego, Disney, Microsoft, and others.

Recently, LEGO UK partnered with NAS, donating LEGO sets to support their initiatives. The Cambridge Autism Research Centre is also exploring ‘LEGO Therapy‘.

While Thomas the Tank Engine has brought joy to many children, including autistic children, asserting a “special connection” necessitates more rigorous scientific validation than these surveys offer. Such claims could raise false hopes or unnecessary concerns among parents.

Furthermore, suggesting that a child’s preference for Thomas indicates an autism spectrum condition could result in unwarranted anxiety. Many children today simply enjoy immersing themselves in the imaginative worlds of TV shows. Without proper research, drawing definitive conclusions is challenging.

To find out about how I AM can offer support contact us at admin@i-am-autism.org.uk or give us a call on 0161 866 8483

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