How Thomas the Tank Engine puts autistic children on right track
by FIONA MACRAE
You may have thought Thomas the Tank Engine was just a simple children’s character.
But his powers, it would seem, run deeper than mere entertainment.
The little blue engine, created in 1945 by clergymen Wilbert Awdry to entertain his sick son, has been found to help the learning process in autistic children.
His large eyes and expressive face are credited with helping victims, who often find it hard to read people’s faces, to distinguish between different emotions.
Books, comic strips and films featuring Thomas and his various friends also help youngsters learn about colours, numbers and words, a survey by the National Autistic Society found.
Parents of autistic children said the combination of clear facial expressions and simple storylines have helped their children make remarkable progress.
Jane Gillham, 37, from Eltham, South East London, whose 10-year-old son Jack is autistic, said: ‘He loved Thomas the Tank Engine from a very early age.
“Jack cannot speak, although he has a very good level of understanding, but we found that he was copying facial expressions from the characters on the television and in the books.
“I think children on the autistic spectrum do learn a lot from Thomas. The facial expressions are clear and defined which is not always the case with human beings.
“I do believe it has helped Jack read other people’s moods.”
Thomas was named favourite toy in a survey of 750 parents of autistic youngsters, with Bob the Builder coming a distant second.
The poll also found that his appeal endures longer among autistic children-Almost 40 per cent of parents said that autistic children liked the character for two years longer than siblings without the condition.
The Reverend Awdry’s creation reached television screens 40 years after he wrote the books with former Beatle Ringo Starr as narrator. The role is soon to be taken on by former James Bond Pierce Brosnan.
Benet Middleton, of the National Autistic Society, said: “Parents feel that Thomas has played a pivotal role in the early learning of many children who have autism partly due to the clear facial expressions and simple story lines.”