Thomas and autism

Thomas is watching too

Before autism, before the regression, the first quirk Sophie exhibited was her sudden and unstoppable love for Thomas the tank engine. As seasoned parents, we had our parenting style down pat by the time Sophie was a toddler (or so we thought). We agreed on the fact that toddlers don't need tv in their lives and never put it on for Sophie (boy, were we in for it). We didn't shield her from her siblings' shows, but we didn't seek out specific toddler programming for her.

Well, one day at my mom's place the kids left the tv on and ran off to play. Sophie absent-mindedly glanced up and there He was. She was captivated and I remember thinking it was so cute. Her older brother was a Thomas fan and I thought it was sweet, passing down the torch so to speak. She was 16 months. So sometime that week I dug up some old DVDs and put it on for Sophie to her delight. And so it began...

In the next few months Sophie started regressing and Thomas took an increasingly more central role in her life, to the eventual exclusion of all else that she used to enjoy. It was a gradual process and we didn't notice it right away. The fact that it was winter, I was pregnant and tired and we went through one flu after another masked the fact that she was becoming completely immersed in the land of Thomas.

So what is it about Thomas?

At one point while researching autism, I looked up "Thomas and autism" on a hunch. Google responded with a flood of hits. Apparently it was a flag for autism and very common (who knew?). This article has a list of reasons of why autistic kids love Thomas, which I will post here, along with my personal notes in brackets:

  • The most obvious, well-known (maybe even a little stereotypical?) reason why children with autism love Thomas the Tank—their obsession with trains. (Sophie does seem to love trains, along with other big vehicles, trucks, cranes, etc)
  • The lining up of things. Since children with autism like to line things up, this must be why they love Thomas the Tank Engine. (Never noticed about Sophie)
  • The trains fall, crash and get smashed—apparently very fascinating to children with autism. The crash scenes in Thomas the Tank are especially appealing because the action is clear and easy to follow. They can easily re-enact the action scenes at home. (Sophie loves the crashes most of all :-) she often anticipates them and then says "uh-oh!")
  • Lack of emotional display. Autistic children relate well to the emotional displays of Thomas the Tank Engine characters. The characters don’t actively talk and their faces are always still. When they do show emotion, it is often exaggerated and set on their faces for a period of time. (I do think so. Hard to say. But her facial expression range is pretty narrow)
  • Concrete emotions. Their emotions are not confusing. The characters are either happy, angry, surprised, tired, scared, or embarrassed. There is nothing in between. (I think it's a big one. It's the only show of its kind. We only put on the old episodes for Sophie. The new computer animated ones lack the magic. And Sophie doesn't like them)
  • Comprehensive role playing. The class wars that take place between the higher order passenger trains and the lower order freight trains appeal to children with autism because it helps them role play with empathy, triumph, and frustration. (I don't know about class struggles but Sophie definitely enjoys their over-the-top personalities and has her favourites).
  • No chaos. The background and scenery are always still, which allows for less distraction and more focus on the main picture. (She can't tell me, but I think she likes that)
  • My own additions- the calm, clear voice of the narrator (George Carlin is our favourite) and the beautiful songs. What's not to love? :-)

Some more links about this topic:



  1. This is absolutely a great post! It puts in one place why Thomas has become the unofficial mascot of autism! Janey has never joined the Island of Sodor crew, strangely, but my older son William as a younger kid made up for that with his extremely love of Sir Topham Hatt's trains. I've never thought of several of those reasons you listed, for example, the crashes. That was probably William's favorite part. When something smashes around the house, after all these years we still say "This is not a jam factory!" in honor of what was said to Percy on some long ago watched episode when he crashed into breakfast. The music is great, and I think there's a lot worse obsessions---for example, several of Janey's ones, like Angelina the Ballerina (nastiest mouse on earth!) and The Care Bears (strange, and the old episodes are truly scary!) Thanks as always for your great writing.


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