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
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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
So, for those
reasons, let’s take a look. What makes Thomas so important for young people
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
the other characters.
The easily identifiable, bold
The roles of each character.
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.
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.
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
listen to, or watch, Thomas, what is the first thing you notice about the
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
So, how did
Thomas help me, in this area?
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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
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.
Thomas. Keep being a Really Useful Engine.