Thomas breaks through

The Henry Ford cultural complex in Dearborn, Michigan hosts a children’s day where a life-sized version of Thomas the Tank Engine comes to visit. So do many places. But they also host a day for children suffering from autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. Turns out, Thomas the Tank Engine is a source of special fascination with these special kids. A report from 2000 explains why this might be. Some highlights:

  • Children with autism are often attracted to objects arranged in lines (like cars on a train), as well as spinning objects and wheels.
  • The unique stop-action photography of the videos allows the background and scenery to remain still, allowing for greater focus on the “big picture” with less distraction.
  • Thomas and the other characters have friendly faces, often with exaggerated expressions. In the videos, the expressions are set for some time and are often accompanied by simple narration explaining the emotion (“Thomas was sad.”), allowing children to identify the feelings and expressions.

I’d wager that this is what makes Thomas appealing to all children, but the particular ways that Thomas “breaks through” to kids with ASD would be a fascinating subject for deeper study. For instance, what about linear (and cyclical) arrangements is so attractive? And are there implications outside of the ASD world? Does this tell us something about human cognition with regards to drama, storytelling, and visual composition?

One response to “Thomas breaks through”

  1. Jeff Berg says :

    If you’re looking for something closer, Thomas the Tank Engine also has a home right near Chicago. A life sized Thomas greets the kids once a year in Union Illinois. See the roster.