Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Train Kept A Rollin'

Konner has many interests that he becomes entwined in. He has cars, computers, reading, and writing. However, as far back as I can remember there is one thing that has captured his mind more than any other-Thomas the Train. This weekend we fulfilled a dream for him, and I learned that he is not alone in his infatuation.

For any parents out there who do not know what Thomas the Tank Engine is; there is a popular children’s show on PBS that uses animated trains to teach kids moral values. Each episode includes stories about hard work and teamwork. For this reason alone Thomas is worth watching for young ones. Not to mention, most children are obsessed with trains. This just amplifies that fascination.

However, for children with Autism there is more to the show than just good moral values. Many kids on the spectrum are learning about emotions, which is a major issue with this neurological disorder. Each train has a human-like face that changes with each emotion and situation that comes along.

This weekend Konner’s idol was in Oklahoma City. We took the long trip and he had a great time. We got to ride in a train car pulled by Thomas. The “A Day Out With Thomas” program is a great way for kids to spend time with their hero, but it is also a social experience for them. The event included an “imagination station” where the kids could play with trains and interact with each other. Konner didn’t want to leave this area, and has told me that this was his favorite part.

Konner really enjoyed the ride and was pretty quiet while we moved down the track. The entire time he was looking out the window in awe.

This made me think back to an article I had read a year or two ago about how therapists were using Thomas to help children with Autism deal with emotions. I thought I would share some of the information and a couple websites.

According to, there was a study done in 2002 by the National Autistic Society in the United Kingdom which shows that Thomas the Tank Engine helps break through the barriers of many children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. According to the site, ”the report confirms this anecdotal evidence, stating that children with ASD associate far more strongly with Thomas the Tank Engine than with other children's characters. Some parents of children with ASD have reported leaps of emotion, imagination and symbolic play that were unimaginable before the child's relationship with Thomas.”

So let’s take a look at some of the reasons given on the site.

·         “Children with autism are often attracted to objects arranged in lines (like cars on a train), as well as spinning objects and wheels.” Konner is no exception. When he was younger I can remember him lining up everything. The most memorable was when he lined up our shoes, in pairs, from one end of the house to the other. He would line up his hot wheels by color, and of course his Thomas trains.

·         “Thomas and his friends have bold, easily-to-recognize colors.” Konner can tell you every train, and most by color.

·         “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.” We have actually worked with Konner some by asking him what expression each train has.

·         “The narration of the videos is calm and clear, and changes are 'signposted' clearly.” This probably helps with transitions, which we know is an issue with autistic children.

·         “The stories are relatively short (less than five minutes) and easy to follow. Things that go wrong are usually resolved by the end of the episode.”  Attention span, even with Thomas, is an issue, but seems to be fine with Konner.

·         “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.”

·         “The characters play predictable roles.” Even though there are no villains, Konner can tell you the ones that are nice or not.

·         “Children with ASD often have the need to identify, list, collect and create lines with favorite objects. Thomas is especially suitable for these activities.” We have trains everywhere. The marketing genius behind this decided to create a plastic mechanical set, a wooden set, and a smaller plastic set. Now we have to have one of each character in each type of set.

The site goes on to explain that children with autism can actually view Thomas as a security blanket. They take trains with them everywhere. When they hear the music is soothes them. This can be true for Konner. He has trains with him 90 percent of the time, and he seems to stop anytime the theme comes on.

To take this experience a step further, and help your child, there is a game on the Thomas and Friends website that deals with emotions, and has proven vital in helping children with Autism Disorders. If you visit: you will find an interactive game where five trains come out of a station and you have to click on the one that matches with the emotion they give you. For example; Thomas, Gordon, Tobey, James, and Henry may pop out of the station with different expressions on their faces and you have to pick which one is sad. Konner hasn’t just fallen in love with the game. The first time we pulled it up he began to run from it. The last time we played it, a couple days ago, he seemed to get excited.

Understanding other’s feelings is a major focus for many children. We have been working with Konner’s speech therapist to help with this. Konner doesn’t understand why others cry and often laughs when they do. He also doesn’t understand sarcasm well. He can’t interpret other’s facial expressions well. On the way to see Thomas Konner was looking in the rearview mirror and making different faces. This was a suggestion from his therapist. We would ask him to make a sad face, or a scared face and he would. This is one way that we try to help him with this issue. This game is another way.

Here are the other websites I mentioned earlier as well.

Disclaimer: I am in no way claiming to be an expert. I’m just a father who is trying to learn as much about Autism as I can to help my child. I hope that you all can learn from me, and I from you. I ask anyone who has questions or comments about something I have written, or autism, please contact me at I will try to answer questions as I have time, and if I find it interesting enough I may touch on it in my column.

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