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.

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.