Do autistic kids especially like Thomas Tank Engine?

Lisa Jo Rudy, the guide to Autism, writes about recent studies that suggest autistic kids are especially attracted to Thomas Tank Engine.
200708021734 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 fun 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.


Reader comment:

David says:

My mother has worked with autistic children (along with other children with special needs) for over 15 years. She first told me that she spotted a connection between autistic children, especially non-verbal kids, and Thomas about five or six years ago. While the thought of lining toys up, etc. are all probably valid, my mother has always told a deeper, though anecdotal connection.

If you've ever been around a reasonably high-functioning, non-verbal autistic child, you can usually tell that their minds are up to something, but it's just about impossible to get them to externalize those thoughts in a way that most of us can understand--e.g words or even facial expressions. Thomas the Tank Engine characters may be happy, sad, or angry, but even though you hear what they "say," they never actively talk and their faces are still.

It's not exactly empirical evidence, but she has seen it in nearly every autistic child she has worked with.

Just a different angle... Not from personal experience, but I trust the source

Keep up the exemplary blogging and making.

Michael says:
I'm a long-time boingboing reader, and I have a fair bit of experience with this phenomenon.

The younger of my two sons, (8), is autistic and a Thomas the Tank Engine fan of epic proportions.

My wife and I have invested approximately 13 ba-friggin-jillion dollars (conservative estimate) in Thomas paraphernalia: Engines, VHS tapes, DVDs, wooden track, play-sets, train tables, birthday party supplies, stickers, clothing etc.

He is rather non-communicative, but definitely NOT non-talkative. Most of his speech consists of lines that he repeats from episodes of Thomas, as well as from a few other shows.

Thomas was also the prime motivation for him to teach himself how to read, how to type (touch-type, no less), and how to search and browse the internet.

Although Lisa Jo Rudy's experiences with autistic children are quite a bit broader than my own, I think that she may be a bit hasty in discounting the appeal of the emotions which the engines on the show display, and more specifically, HOW they are displayed.

HUGE DISCLAIMER:Bearing in mind that making broad statements concerning autism is not always the most well-advised of choices, especially for someone in my position (i.e. not a psychologist, therapist or special education teacher, only a parent) I'll limit my observations to my child alone.

The appeal of Thomas to my son is, I believe, multi-faceted in nature:

1) a large cast of readily recognizable characters. They are colorful, have unique shapes, and it's fun having their names committed to memory.

2) quite a bit of dialogue. This too is fun to memorize. One of Nicholas' favorite things to do is to recite long stretches of dialogue, and to have me repeat it back to him. Also, now that he's memorized every episode, they no longer contain surprises for him, and he anticipates every action and line of dialogue. When he was much younger, he used to enjoy turning light switches off and on. Now, he rewinds and replays certain parts of an episode. I believe these are behaviors which are based in the desire for predictability, and for the power to effect 100% predictable results.

3) the action of the shows is readily re-enactable with materials at hand, and when you do, it looks ALMOST EXACTLY like it does on the show.

4) the faces that the characters make when displaying emotions: The important difference between Thomas the Tank Engine, and almost every other show geared for children is the manner in which various emotions are evinced by the characters. The faces of the characters, owing to the way in which the show is produced (live-action and stop-action), are completely static and non-animated. There are no slow progressions from one emotion to another with these characters. They are either happy, or angry, or surprised, or tired, or scared, with no middle ground or in-between-ness.

Moreover, the emotional state of the character in question is usually reinforced by explicit statements from the narrator, i.e. "Thomas was surprised" or "Bill and Ben were angry", etc. For a very long time, Nicholas' repertoire of expressions (and the ones which he had me replicate for him on demand) were: happy, sad, and surprised. He and I have played this particular game countless hundreds of times, which is more than enough for me to be aware of the fact that this holds a special appeal to him.


  1. My grandson has been diagnosed with autism, he is 5 now. I have just discovered this link with Thomas T E and autism today and I am gobsmacked! James has had a fascination/obsession which is growing daily with Thomas and I can relate to all that is said about how he copies large chunks of dialogue and comments on facial expressions etc. I had no idea other autistic children did the same. He barely plays with anything else and his only other keen interest is in our local church and the Cathedral in our local city?! I have no idea why, we are not religious, he seems fascinated with just running round them? He will spend every waking hour doing it if we let him, that and playing with Thomas. Easy to please huh? Thanks for enlightening me, I have found it very useful reading everyone’s comments. Sandra

  2. My son is 2, he will be 3 at the end of this month. He too was very recently diagnosed with Autism. He has had an extreme obsession with Thomas. My theory with this obsession is the life like color aspect of the show. The facial expressions on these trains are point blank clear. My son has a difficult time with expressing how he feels. My son does not speak. I disagree with the inability to communicate. He communicates, you just have to learn his ways of communicating. My son will say his ABC’s by flash cards, counts to 20, says his shapes, and then in an instant is back to the trains. He has a certain order he puts them in and I have learned to only associate his feelings by using the sad, happy, scared, and surprised facial expressions. With my son I have used this as a teaching tool to help communicate his feelings. I have made his surrounding Thomas based to keep him comforted. Bedroom, eating utensils, his cups, clothing, tooth brush, toothpaste, bandaids, toys galore, rewards, pictures, clothing, pajamas, swimming gear, shoes, bath time stuff, you name it my son has it. My son will inneract with the DVD mimicking the sounds, he laughs, he smiles, he has even cried when something sad happens. I have even worked it into a method of being able to kiss booboo’s by giving Thomas a kiss when he falls off the table. I have learned that if you find that window to get into your Autistic childs world and he/she lets you in that window, then climb in. Be conistent with it. My son is far from deaf, so I know he is taking in what I am saying. Regardless of his diagnosis he is just like any other toddler. He is a sponge and is sucking in as much information as he can. To say to Thomas every night at bedtime, “I love you Thomas, and I say I love you too Mommy”, and after months of doing this my son SAYS in place of me saying it, “I love you too Mommy”, I know at that moment, deep inside that brilliant mind he wants to let it out. As a parent, I will do whatever it takes to hear him say one day he is happy, sad, mad, or suprised. One day my son will be able to say thank you for the swing set instead of laying on the floor with his trains. Thomas the Train has become another kid in my home and my son is responding to it extremely well. My son says things but its those few things. He will not tell you his desires, dislikes, he will only scream at you when he wants something, when he dislikes something, or even when he is excited. None of this happens over night. It takes time a patience and finding your understanding and the window that you can climb into. Thomas for me has been a blessing and I will do what it takes including painting myself blue with a number 1 on it (lol). Good luck to all of you

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