01 August 2007

Thomas the Tank Engine's Special Connection?

Recent reports from the British Daily Mail and the Canadian Broadcasting Company (alert by Book Moot) have discussed the popularity of the Thomas the Tank Engine stories and toys for children with autism.

I know a couple of little boys who have been fascinated beyond reason (at least my reason) by Thomas, so I thought this was an interesting report. But the more I looked into the news, the less it looked like news and the more it smelled like marketing.

News outlets have carried stories about a “special connection” between the Thomas the Tank Engine stories and children with autism since 2000, if not before. Websites cite an article that appeared in the New York Post that year on 26 July, headlined “Autistic Kids Make Connection with Thomas.”

The National Autism Society undertook a survey about Thomas the Tank Engine in the summer of 2001. It worked through Aidan Prior Communications, a London public relations firm; Prior is listed as coauthor of some other NAS reports. The NAS issued this study in February 2002, and its four-page summary can be downloaded from the group’s webpage. However, the actual data from the survey and information about the methodology aren't included.

This survey heard from 81 parents of children with autism--not a large sample. There’s no indication of a control group of parents whose children don’t have an autism diagnosis, so as to set a baseline for comparison. The summary doesn’t explain how researchers determined that respondents were even typical of parents with autistic children rather than self-selected Thomas fans.

The survey was undertaken based on an “assumption from anecdotal evidence that children with autism spectrum disorders associate far more strongly with Thomas the Tank Engine than with other children’s characters.” There’s no indication that the researchers tried to protect their results against that assumption from the start.

In April 2007, the NAS conducted a new survey “with support from HIT Entertainment, producers and rights-owners of Thomas & Friends.” This survey had a larger sample: “748 U.K. parents of children under 10 with autism,” the CBC reports. (The Daily Mail says 750, but that’s close enough for a tabloid.) Its summary can be downloaded here.

Here are the top findings from the 2002 report:

Children on the autism spectrum associate with Thomas before any other children’s character (57%).

These children maintain their association with Thomas longer than for other characters, commonly two years longer than their typically developing siblings.
The latest report echoes the earlier findings with uncanny precision.
58% of parents reported that Thomas & Friends was the first children’s character their child liked.

Almost 39% of parents reported that their child’s interest in Thomas & Friends lasted over two years longer than siblings’ interest in the character.
So a survey of 81 parents in 2001 and a survey of 748 parents in 2007 produce the same answer to the same question within a single percentage point? Is that how social science usually works? Blogging Autism shares my skepticism.

Of course, the NAS doesn’t claim that these surveys are scientifically valid. Instead, there are signs on the group’s website of a mutually beneficial publicity relationship between it and HIT Entertainment, owners of the Thomas brand. On its page seeking corporate support, the NAS lists among the advantages it offers, “Experience of managing high profile campaigns including Barclays, HIT Entertainment, House of Fraser, Supercook, Tesco, T-Mobile and Vodafone.”

HIT has allowed/encouraged the NAS to use its popular characters in fundraising. In return, the page thanking HIT Entertainment also tells us, “There are now two new characters to collect, Mavis and Percy, who will join Thomas, James, Henry and Gordon in this highly collectable series.”

In May 2006, the NAS recommended a new picture book titled How Do You Feel, Thomas? The NAS’s page of “Ideas for toys and leisure activities” singles out “train toys (especially Thomas the Tank Engine)” and “videos, especially Thomas the Tank Engine,” along with other products from Tomy, Duplo, Lego, Disney, Microsoft, and other corporations.

And speaking of Lego, in February the NAS announced:
LEGO UK has donated LEGO construction sets to The National Autistic Society (NAS), the UK's leading charity for people with autism, as part of a year-long partnership. The venture will see the company working closely with the NAS in a variety of ways to help raise awareness of the disability. . . .

Products including LEGO Classic House Building and LEGO Quad Bike have been distributed to NAS services around the UK, as well as to each of the Society's six schools.

A research project is also currently underway by the Cambridge Autism Research Centre into 'LEGO Therapy'.
Should we expect press releases about the effectiveness of "LEGO Therapy" for children with autism in a few months?

Now I have nothing against Thomas the Tank Engine stories and toys, though I don't personally feel the appeal. Millions of kids have gotten lots of pleasure out of those books, models, videos, goodness-knows-what-else. In the UK, the Thomas show is a mainstay of the BBC children's programming. It's possible that most British children, regardless of their brain chemistry, like Thomas first.

Naturally, some of those young Thomas fans would also have conditions on the autism spectrum. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if a disproportionate fraction of them did. And if some of those kids learn to read emotional facial expressions from Thomas and his friends, the more power to them. Similarly, the National Autism Society apparently does good work, including funding solid research and treatment, so I don't begrudge the organization its corporate sponsors.

But to posit a “special connection” between kids with autistic conditions and a specific brand should require a more scientific basis than these surveys. In particular, to suggest that that brand's books and toys are especially helpful for autistic kids may create false hopes for parents, or needless worries if their kids feel drawn to other characters or topics instead.

Furthermore, the notion of a “special connection” carries the implication that children who get all excited about Thomas might have some sort of autism spectrum disorder--another possible source of needless worry. Perhaps getting excited beyond reason about the world of a TV show is a common part of modern early childhood. Without a control group and a real study, we can't know.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I fell for this one myself.
Not that I ran out and did anything about it...

Glad someone cast a skeptical eye on it ... too bad it wasn't the reporter that put this "science" on the wires.

Otir said...

I have two boys, one with autism and the other without.

The boy with autism typically gets attached to characters longer than his sibling whether it is Thomas the Tank Engine or any other. The data does not make sense because perseveration and attachment to something known is typical of autistic behaviors, and not particularly related to Thomas the Tank Engine.

My son has a great deal of computer softwares that he discovered when he was 2 yo and still plays with them at the age of 11, in a different way (more skilled), but he still gets very excited with them.

My perception is that he is always attracted to any kind of show that includes music instead of talking (it is indicated that this is not the same area that is activated in the brain if you sing instead of speak), like Barney and sing along songs in general.

He uses the disney tapes to convey some of the messages that he cannot retrieve easily by himself, and it always makes sense. (He scripts them). He has never used the songs in Thomas the Tank Engine to relay his messages, because the situations don't apply like they do with the Disney characters.

He likes playing with the trains because his brother build them for him.

I think the study is useless, parents with children with autism find out what their kids are attracted to easily, like spinning washing machines, and they don't need data to be brought to the general public so that all the grandparents, uncles and relatives jump on them to tell them "see? you got to cure your child with Thomas the Tank Engine!"

Camille said...

Timing is everything.

Let's see, what line of toy trains were just discovered to have been coated with toxic lead paint and had to be recalled?

Anonymous said...

I think Camille is on to something

J. L. Bell said...

The survey was announced on the National Autism Society's website in April, it says. HIT Entertainment and the National Autism Society had been working together for years before that.

The "Thomas" recall (actually, it was James who was most potentially toxic) came in June. It's conceivable that the results of the survey were released to improve Thomas's headlines, but the survey was already under way by then.