“Responsible, Reliable, Really Useful” – Thomas The Tank Engine & Its Connection To Autism
“Thomas is a tank engine who lives at the big station on the Island of Sodor. He’s a cheeky little engine with six small wheels, a short stumpy funnel, a short stumpy boiler, and a short stumpy dome.”
Once Ringo Starr enunciated those words to British audiences in 1984 (and American audiences in 1989), Thomas The Tank Engine became an instant hit and continues to delight children worldwide to this very day, for better or worse.
For those living under a rock for the past 35 years or so, “Thomas & Friends” follows the adventures of the titular tank engine and his friends as they always strive to prove their worth, and get into trouble while doing so. Whether it’s something as simple as racing a bus, or crashing into a chocolate factory, there is always something happening on Sodor.
While it got its start as a book series by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry entitled “The Railway Series” in 1945, it was thanks to the efforts done by Britt Allcroft & David Mitton that Thomas really took off. Instead of using the traditional flashy “made to sell toys” animation route (much like the shows “He-Man” & “Thundercats” tended to go down), it was decided that the series would be made using live-action model trains & sets. This was the series’ hallmark until 2009, when it was decided to switch to CGI, where it remained for the next 12 years.
For me, personally, Thomas was the very first thing I was ever into as a child. I was downright obsessed with it, and still am to an extent. I had multiple VHS tapes, TONS of books, a handful of toys from each toy line released and went to actual railroads for “Day Out With Thomas” a few times. It never really left me all that much, and even when I didn’t watch, or collect it anymore, I still kept up with it. For something targeted at kids as old as 6, it was fascinating.
However, what I find most interesting about Thomas is something that gets overlooked by its fans, general audiences, and even by the companies that have owned it, is its popularity and connection with those on the Autism spectrum. Why is that? Why are the adventures of this little blue engine something that connects to a certain audience?
Well, in 2002, The National Autistic Society released a study as to why that is, and while we identify Autism much differently today than when this was released, I believe a lot of the points made here still ring true. So, let’s look at some of those factors.
All images and videos used are owned by Mattel, Inc, and/or credited creators
**Any users’ content shared does not indicate that the users themselves are on the autism spectrum. Their work is included to provide examples of the connections to said audience**
One common struggle that people with Autism have is difficulty in reading or misunderstanding facial expressions. It can be hard to tell if someone is Happy, Sad, Angry, or Neutral, as there can be many different interpretations of those emotions. This is one area where Thomas shined.
David Mitton & his crew sculpted various different faces for all the different characters featured, which could be swapped out depending on what the scene required. To make it even better, they had moving eye mechanisms, which gave the faces life without moving the mouths.
And it was more than just a couple of face masks. Thomas alone had over 38 of them! This was a good way for Autistic kids to learn about emotions, as they had quite a variety. For example, if Thomas was seen as mad, was he angry or annoyed? What about when he looked happy? Was he calm, excited, or proud? Little variations like that really make it stand out, and make it very easy to decipher one over the other.
I think everyone, even those who haven’t seen Thomas, know that Ringo Starr, George Carlin, and Alec Baldwin provided their talents as storytellers during the series’ golden years in America. However, while they were very good, I am also referring to the style in which it was presented.
Being based on a series of children’s storybooks, it was decided that Thomas needed a narrator to give it that kind of feel. And those who lend their voices really took it to heart. All three really made each narration their own. In doing so, it was easy to follow the story, whether they were expressing how “cross” Sir Topham Hatt was, doing a voice for “Devious Diesel”, or having Oliver confused about what it means to have “resource & sagacity”. They also really matched their tone to whatever situation the characters were in and kept it consistent even if it was frightening, or scary, as to not make the audience feel the same way.
For Autistic kids, that’s important, especially with a format like this. Most of the time, they prefer calm & simple tones that not only keep their attention, but can also make them feel safe & sound, which all three narrators did whether they knew it or not.
Side note: George Carlin’s narration is soothing to the soul.
Music & Sounds
Music in any kids show is important, as it is one of the driving forces in its success, and Thomas was no different in that regard. Yes, you all know the earworm that is the original theme song, but original composers, Mike O’ Donnell & Junior Campbell (pictured below), had more up their sleeves.
Pretty much each character, situation, and every location had a very unique score that was updated as the series went on. From the mighty theme of engines going over the viaduct, to the whimsical charm of Thomas’ theme, to the inclusion of the William Tell overture in the show’s musical scores for runaway trains, each scene had its own special symphony.
Autistic children like repetition & familiarity, in which the music helped a lot. Sometimes they would use the same score they did a year ago, and sometimes, they would update it to match the look of the season’s update. As such, familiar chords can be picked up and pointed out, no matter if the show looks different, or if the narrator sounds different. Just compare Season 2’s Viaduct theme with Season 3’s Harbor theme, or Percy’s Season 1, and Season 5 themes to see for yourself. These are all music recreations, by the way, but they sound exactly like the show’s scores.
This also was apparent in the sound effects from the engine’s whistles, to the famous chuffing sound and the crashing sounds. It all added a sense of familiarity and really made the other elements feel complete.
One section of the study states: “About a quarter of responding parents described their children’s relationship/association with Thomas to be partly about learning, primarily around colors, numbers, and language. The significance of Thomas’ role in all forms of learning is considerable, but especially noteworthy is the influence on language learning, which is often late to develop and sometimes entirely absent in children with autism.”.
This is true on many levels, and the one that stuck out to me was the vocabulary that Thomas presented. Of course, for being a show about a railway, they used technical terms all the time, but I’m talking more about the big words they would use that would have nothing to do with railway terminology. Words like resource, sagacity, deputation, conceited, coloratura, admiration, sagacious and dignified were all said and explained on a series about talking trains. Some of these can be attributed to the adaptions of the Railway Series books, as Wilbert Awdry stated that he was not really writing for children, but for the adults who had to read them to their children. In doing so, kids probably knew these words way before their peers did.
Plus, they were sometimes funny when it came to advanced vocabulary. For example, in the episode “The Deputation”, while they understand what it means, they can’t pronounce it right, mistaking it for “Depot station, desperation, disputation”, or in “Oliver Owns Up”, where Oliver says he’s “sagacious” and the other engines say “good gracious” ’cause they can’t pronounce it themselves. Doing it this way sticks out more and helps kids remember if they need to use these words in the future.
It Looked & Felt Real
Without a doubt, the best thing about Thomas was that it looked & felt real. How does this connect with Autistic kids? Simple. It adds a sense of “real-life fantasy”.
The decision to make the series using model trains & sets was a smart one, as a lot of money was poured into it. Britt Allcroft even re-mortgaged her first home to finance the first season! As a result, everything was built from scratch. The characters, locations, wooden figures, trees, everything. The best part was that as each season went on, it improved in quality (the first 5 seasons anyway), which gave it a familiar, yet very real look to it. The characters looked real, the stations looked real, the trees looked real, the water looked real, the crashes looked real, everything just looked so lifelike. David Mitton himself used to work on the original Thunderbirds series and also did a short-lived sister project called Tugs, so it’s no shock he brought his a-game to Thomas as it gained worldwide fame.
Autistic people can be very drawn to detail and Thomas was a detail-filled series, to the point where those who love it can pick out any inconsistencies, or relate it to real-life railways that they may visit, or view online. While this particular trait wasn’t on Britt Allcroft or David Mitton’s mind, it was one that helped Thomas succeed beyond the general audience it was made for.
Much like every children franchise that gets big, Thomas is pretty massive in the toy market as well. Back in the 2000s, you couldn’t walk down the toy department of Target without seeing one-half of the preschool aisle stocked with battery-powered, die-cast, and wooden products based off of it. But what does this have to do with its connection to Autism?
As mentioned earlier, the show’s format is that of a storybook with various locations & characters, and the toys are meant to replicate that. With this, children can repeat various episodes or even create their own.
An article from The Place For Children With Autism states, “Children have an inherent sense of creativity that grows and stretches as their minds develop. Children on the autism spectrum, in particular, can display a deep sense of creativity and imagination.” I feel that this defines the Thomas toy lines quite well. They can very well teach autistic children about creative development and how to create stories all of their own. In fact, there are TONS of Thomas fan content on YouTube that display just that with various toy ranges, model trains, and even train simulators.
Plus, as they get older, they may be interested in learning about how the show was made and how it was filmed, which could lead to them making their own replicas. Much like Twitter user and FlyingPringle did with his own custom-made Toby The Tram Engine.
While this doesn’t apply to just autistic children/adults (Thomas is a brand that can be enjoyed by everyone, of course), the fact that its connection with this audience goes beyond the TV series is fascinating.
Life Imitates Art
Probably one of the most interesting facts about Thomas and its Autism connection is that someone who worked with it actually has it.
In 1981, Australian illustrator, Owen Bell, was hired to create illustrations that emulated the TV series. He mixed in the charm of the Railway Series books to use for various products, such as: books, posters, jigsaw puzzles, and fine china (seriously, it’s amazing). While he ended his contributions in 1996, his artwork continues to be in circulation, most notably in Japan.
In an interview with Australian Broadcasting Company News, they showcased Bell’s digital image work as well as his past Thomas work, where he revealed that he self-diagnosed himself with “Asperger’s Syndrome”. At the time of the interview, it was labeled as a form of autism, which was later confirmed by his doctor & psychiatrist. He attributes this to how obsessed he is with detail and that is very apparent in his Thomas work, from the way the engines look, to the building, and even to tiny things like backgrounds or foaming water from a watermill.
When asked about it, he described it as,“I’m well up on the spectrum, but I’m not full-blown. I like to put it this way. I’m not ‘rain man’, I’m sort of like ‘shower man’. I don’t look upon it as a disability. In my own experience, it’s actually a gift because it allows me to do what I do the way that I do it, because of my obsession with detail and my ability to be able to focus so strongly on one thing for hours and hours and hours without sort of wandering off. It allows me to do what I do.”
Pretty neat that someone who actually worked on Thomas had the same disability as a good chunk of its audience did, and that makes it all the more humble.
One particular section of the study talks about how Thomas acts as a “security blanket” for autistic children, even in their teenage & adult years. What does that mean exactly?
It states that “Many parents mention the ‘calming’, ‘comforting’, ‘ security blanket’ role of Thomas. Some children had to have their diecast models with them at all times, including in bed. In other cases, the security may involve leaving the video on in the background for the comfort and sound whilst children are eating or involved in other activities.“ This can be true for many other franchises aimed at a similar audience like “Blue’s Clues”, “Bear In The Big Blue House”, “The Wiggles”, and “Winnie The Pooh” to name a few. However, Thomas is in a whole league of its own.
Its visual style, its narrators, its musical score, and its overall familiarity can really give autistic children a sense of safeness & comfort. They need it the most, especially after having a bad day, or in the aftermath of a meltdown, which I’m sure made many parents, teachers & caregivers relieved that their children gravitated towards something positive and soothing to calm them down. Thomas was indeed really useful in more ways than one.
It really comes as no surprise that Thomas connects with this specific audience the way it does. What just looks like a typical kids brand to the everyday viewer and shopper is actually much more than that. The connection to autistic audiences is probably the strongest one on the kids market. In fact, in 2002, “Children on the autism spectrum associate with Thomas before any other children’s character (57%).” Imagine what that number is like 20 years later!
But the most important thing to take away from this is that the Thomas brand is a very “trusting” one. It makes parents of autistic children relieved that their child is gravitating towards something so safe & wholesome that they do not need to worry about their child being sad or frustrated. In fact, Thomas makes them happy, but a special kind of happy. If they were alive today, Wilbert Awdry, David Mitton, and George Carlin would be very proud.
“Now I know I can trust an engine, especially if his name is Thomas!” – Bertie The Bus
Seasons 1-7 of Thomas & Friends are currently available to stream on Amazon Prime & Roku. If you would like to learn more about the series, visit these various sources:
- Thomas The Tank Engine Wikia – fan-created Wikipedia covering all incarnations of the franchise
- The Unlucky Tug – weekly YouTuber who does analysis videos on characters, episodes, timelines, etc.
- Mod Music – Co-composter Mike O’Donnell’s blog as well as an online shop in which he sells albums with Thomas music recreations
- An Unlikely Fandom – Upcoming Thomas & Friends fandom documentary directed by Brannon Carty
- S.A. Music – Composer who re-creates Thomas scores
- ThomasTankMerch – Owners of several Thomas props
To learn more about ASD (autism spectrum disorder), visit ASAN (Autistic Self Advocacy Network).
Be responsible, reliable, and really useful readers!