Monday, 4 July 2011

Thomas the Tank Engine and autism

'They're two, they're four, they're six, they're eight, shunting trucks and hauling freight'. Ask a person in the average UK  (or other) street what these words mean and, assuming they haven't got children, most won't have a clue. Ask a parent with young(ish) children and you might get an altogether different response.

When thinking about autism spectrum conditions and their representation in the media and popular press, there are a few 'symbols' which come to mind. Most people would be familiar with the 'jisgaw piece' [previously] used by organisations like the National Autistic Society (NAS) and Autism Speaks. I assume the jigsaw piece is meant to represent... well, I don't know what it is meant to represent to tell you the truth. Autism as a puzzle, an enigma? The jigsaw of life? Some might say it may be representative of 'not fitting it'. I don't offer any opinion either way but assume that your interpretation will depend on your perception, experience, politics and viewpoint.

One of the other, more enduring symbols of autism, at least here in the UK, is that childhood favourite Thomas the Tank Engine. The NAS have entered into a bit of a partnership with the makers of Thomas over the past few years selling various Thomas things including pins and cards in aid of the NAS. Because I am not sure if everyone knows about Thomas, let me enlighten you. Thomas is a train with a face on the front of the engine. You can see a picture of him and his many friends here (alas, there is no Paul engine). His various adventures have been translated from the books by the Rev. Wilbert Awdry, who coincidental would have celebrated his 100th birthday in the next few days, to a very successful children's TV series.. two versions of it in fact. Thomas also famously courted the attention of a Beatle.

Just so you know Thomas and his friends are a very popular, well-loved series here in the UK and perhaps further afield across many different groups not just those children with autism or other developmental diagnoses. It is with autism in mind, that Thomas and his friends have perhaps found their biggest fan base; the question is why?

I will state for the record that I am not trying to provide any definitive answer as to why Thomas and friends are so popular. Every child (autistic or not) has their own little 'obsessions' as part of growing up; fads which change according to what they see, watch, read, are exposed to; and also fads because of what other people (peers) see, watch read and are exposed to. Lisa Jo Rudy over at autism.about discussed Thomas and autism a while back as did the NAS following their research into the subject.

The collective findings suggest that there are quite a few reasons why children with autism seem to have such an affinity to Thomas including:

  • The clear storylines; something goes wrong in every episodes but is put right in the end.
  • The friendly faces on the engines with exaggerated responses used to denote happy, sad, angry, etc.
  • Thomas is a train, and quite a few children with autism like things like trains (mechanical, predictable, lots of lines, wheels, etc).

There are a few patterns emerging from these and the other reasons put forward for liking Thomas. 'Predictability' is probably one of the biggest themes; a bit like watching an episode of that 1980s classic 'the A-Team' and their 'we'll get captured and locked in a shed with lots of tools to make a tank' routine coupled with being the only soldiers of fortune who don't actually shoot anyone despite using automatic weapons every week! Ah yes, predictability at its 1980s best.

Whilst I can't say for sure on the new Thomas series, the old series apparently never showed the mouths of the engine faces move when speaking for one reason or another. Given the various research on face processing in autism, I wonder if perhaps this might also be a key point in how relaxing Thomas and friends come across and the issue of cross-modal parallel processing (as described by this study). On this topic, and without getting 'too psychological', I wonder if the Disney Cars for example, might show a similar or different response to children with autism given their very pronounced facial movements including the mouth (teeth and tongue) when talking?

Whatever the reason, the popularity of Thomas and friends has been sort of exploited from a therapeutic perspective to autism in the series 'The Transporters' and evaluated experimentally in areas of emotion recognition.

If only all TV could be so educational...