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Max Keogh looks at why Thomas connects  so deeply with young people with autism and learning difficulties

Before I begin this piece, here is a small introduction. I am 22 years old, a Thomas fan, and provide emotional and holistic support for young adults with autism and additional learning difficulties, as a profession. On a daily basis, I work with individuals with a wide range of complex behavioural and emotional needs. I greatly respect everybody I support, and value each working experience I share with them. With these needs, I encounter many various personalities; each one specific, and completely unique to each person.


However, there is one character who evokes an emotional reaction from young people with autism, that strikes me, every time, as powerful, and profoundly moving. This character, his world and the many inhabitants that live in it, creates a warm, cosy and safe place, where these vulnerable young people can feel protected, welcome and contented.


That character, is Thomas the Tank Engine.

Speaking from my own perspective, as a young adult who also has mild autism and learning difficulties, Thomas the Tank Engine was the first fictional character I developed an emotional attachment to. One that continues, to this day. The beloved tank engine, created by clergyman Reverend Awdry in 1945 to entertain his sick son, Christopher, often helped me, when I was younger, during my social and emotional development.


As someone who struggled, and occasionally, still does, to distinguish between different emotions expressed by other people, Thomas was a great aid in helping me read people’s facial expressions; something that is a great challenge for people with autism. For instance, there is instant clarity when Thomas is angry, or anxious. Something that often, is not on many human faces.


Far beyond the entertainment Thomas provides its fans, it’s significant impact on the development on people with autism, proves that the value of Awdry’s character runs far deeper than that. In a way, Thomas is a tool for children, and indeed, adults to learn valuable life skills. Learning about colours, numbers and words- Thomas is as educational, as it is entertaining.


According to the National Autistic Society, Thomas the Tank Engine plays a pivotal role in the early learning of many children with autism. Fifty-five percent of parents have identified that the clear facial expressions, and fifty-one percent have also identified the simple moral narratives, have attributed to important parts of an autistic child’s development. Other factors, such as the bright colours of each engine, and the current Thomas and Friends theme song enabling autistic children to develop communication skills, by singing along to it, have been sighted by many parents as one of the reasons for the character’s broad autistic following. Many of these parents, I have known personally throughout my career.


However, I have always believed there is something more about how Thomas has changed the lives of so many vulnerable young people. Speaking as an adult Thomas geek, who is also on the autism spectrum, I have often thought about what exactly, is it about Thomas that has given me such pleasure throughout my life?


Subsequently, I have thought a lot about how Thomas relates so innately to people with autism. It seems as though HiT Entertainment, the current licence holders of the property, are aware of the special relationship Thomas shares with young adults and children with autism. Since 2001, the Thomas & Friends brand has had a hugely successful partnership with the National Autistic Society, running a wide variety of charity events, such as autism-friendly sponsored walks, and social events for parents and families.

Everybody in the Thomas fan culture has made up their own mind, in regards to the HiT Entertainment era of Thomas, as to whether they enjoy what’s become of this cultural icon, or not. However, HiT’s utter embrace of Thomas’ autistic fans, and unparalleled support the company has given the community, is to be commended.


So, for those reasons, let’s take a look. What makes Thomas so important for young people with autism?

Generally, the enduring appeal of Thomas has been argued elsewhere, a thousand times from the fan base, literary enthusiasts, and psychologists and so on. However, for people with autism, the appeal of Thomas is possibly in these key areas:

  • The facial expressions of Thomas and the other characters.

  • The easily identifiable, bold colour scheme.

  • Narration.

  • The roles of each character.


I’ll mainly be focusing on the UK interpretations of Thomas, and the original Britt Allcroft series, as it is the version that most young people with autism watch, and are familiar with.


First, let’s start with the element that has become with synonymous with Thomas, as a character. Narration.  Long before Thomas became a cultural institution, in large part due to the huge success of the much-loved 1984 model animated series by Britt Allcroft, narration was how Sodor was brought to life.

From the beginning, in which Reverend Wilbert Awdry himself read the stories to his son, Christopher, as he was caught with measles in his room, to the delightful voices of Johnny Morris and Willie Rushton, serving as the first true narrators through the 1962 audio recordings of The Railway Series, to the narrators everybody knows and loves, such as Ringo Starr and Michael Angelis, Thomas has a gentle storybook sensibility, that makes it resonate with young and old alike.

When you listen to, or watch, Thomas, what is the first thing you notice about the narration?

The narration always remains calm, clear and soothing. For some people with autism, story recall and narrative coherence can be difficult. This can be due to a number of reasons, such as varying attention spans, or the capacity for the individual to understand certain words or phrases. Thomas, immediately, breaks down this barrier, by the narration being spoken with a slow, methodical tone that allows people with autism to process each story beat clearly, at their own pace.


For example, take the opening to Thomas and Gordon, the televised adaptation, which premiered in the UK, on October 9th, 1984. Ringo Starr, through his quiet Liverpuldian narration, speaks each word with a clear rhythm; “Thomas…  is a Tank Engine… Who lives at a big station… On the Island of Sodor”. Notice, the pause Ringo makes during each word in that sentence. Also, notice how he maintains tonal consistency as he softly reads.


Processing auditory information is a critical component of social communication, and this a challenge that is commonly associated with people who have autism spectrum disorders. Thomas, through its combined use of warm, reassuring and slowly paced narration, with simple, yet engaging, model animation, allows people with autism to follow the story, whilst also hearing clear speech sounds, and attach meaning to each sound.


Perhaps, this all ties in with another key element of Thomas, in terms of its storytelling approach. The use of onomatopoeia, which is the use of sound in the formation of a word, is a large part of how Awdry’s Railway Series, has earned its place in children’s literary history. It is also, quite possibly, why young people with autism become so enraptured by Thomas.

Depending on what you understand about autism, or any personal experiences you may have had with the condition yourself, you may know that sights, sounds and smells of any kind, are difficult for people with autism to process. Indeed, processing everyday information, can have a profound effect on a person’s life. This is where Thomas, greatly aids an autistic young person.


Thomas gradually, introduces a mixture of various sights and sounds, at carefully implemented sequences. There is rarely lots of sound happening all at once. Instead, the sound is gently introduced, with the focus always being on a small amount of characters. The best example of this in motion, is Thomas and Bertie. At the beginning of the episode, you first hear Thomas’ train whistle. Then, you hear the horn of Bertie. Other than Ringo’s narration, those are the only two sounds you hear in the first minute of the episode.


Due to only two primary sounds being used, this allows people with autism to apply their focus on Thomas and Bertie, without being overstimulated, by unfamiliar sounds. Thomas and Bertie, themselves, are the only two characters in the beginning of the episode. There is no other character, or sound, to interrupt the flow of the story. The backgrounds are always still, which allows for less distraction, and more focus on the main story. In that sense, Thomas provides a calming sensory story; it engages on three levels; sight, sound, and auditory, simultaneously, but it never loses its simplicity.


Now, we come to possibly, the aspect of Thomas, which draws people with autism to the character. The facial expressions. As mentioned before, people with autistic spectrum disorders find it difficult to perceive the emotions of others. Speaking for myself, as somebody who has an autistic spectrum disorder, I often used Thomas, as a way to help me discern the feelings of others around me, as a child.

So, how did Thomas help me, in this area?


Firstly, Thomas and the other characters already have friendly faces, with the cast often smiling, in some capacity. The relationship between me and Thomas was already established, as I felt a connection between the characters. I personally, feel this is why people with autism, connect so profoundly with Thomas. The characters always express friendliness; whether it be their demeanour, such as the smiles, or their exchanges with other characters.


As each episode develops, these friendly, and familiar, faces soon start to become exaggerated. The exaggerations are done not purely just for effect, but also to make it more obvious how the characters are feeling. Often, in many Thomas episodes, such as Ghost Train, the expressions are on-screen for some time, allowing people with autism to understand the expression, with genuine clarity. The expressions are often accompanied by simple narration explaining the emotion. For instance, in Thomas’ Train, when Thomas discovers he has left the coaches behind, we see an expression of an upset Thomas, followed by; “Thomas was so sad, he nearly cried”.


In that sense, Thomas plays a larger role, than just being a reassuring companion for autistic individuals. Rather, Thomas the Tank Engine serves as a gateway, into the often difficult world of understanding emotions. It had the same effect on me, and it does, for the young adults I support every day. For people who struggle to relate to the thoughts and feelings of other people, Thomas provides characters that people with autism CAN relate to. Characters who have expressions, thoughts and feelings of their very own.

Thomas, and the mythical island, Sodor, in which his friends inhabit, serves as a comforting, familiar and reassuring presence, in a world that is often, the exact opposite. In fact, the real world where people with autism live, is often a frightening, incomprehensible place. Thomas, on the other hand, is a world where (mostly) each character supports each other.


The world of Sodor is, at least, in the occasionally fragmented mind of an autistic person, a comprehensive one, where each character assumes clear role-playing. For example, Thomas, James, Henry and Percy and all the others, have a hierarchical social order, in which the characters have different responsibilities. Examples include, Thomas with his branch line, and Edward arranging the Troublesome Trucks, as two very basic examples. This is another way how Thomas enables understanding of human emotions for people with autism; it helps individuals role play themselves, with emotions such as empathy, triumph and frustration. 


Really, there is so much more I could say about this topic. However, in conclusion, the profound emotional connection people with autism share with Thomas, is all the more reason as to why Awdry’s character is still so important, vital, and necessary in modern popular culture. Thomas has the ability to change lives, and give people happiness, in a way that no other children’s character can provide. As Thomas begins to take a more central role in the lives of millions of autistic people, it only speaks volumes of the enduring appeal the character still maintains.


Of course, not every autistic person is the same, and like all of us, have their own varying interests. However, the love that so many people with autism share with Thomas, perhaps makes you wonder, whether anything really is strictly for children. Often, nothing could be further from the truth.

Thank you, Thomas. Keep being a Really Useful Engine.

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