Thomas the Tank Engine has been delighting children since 1945. Thomas, a steam engine, was introduced in the second book of the “Railway Series”, written by Reverend Wilbert Awdry and his son Christopher. Adapted into an award-winning TV series in 1979, “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends” became a hit around the world. And this summer, a new film, “Thomas & Friends: Journey Beyond Sodor”, introduces a cast of “experimental engines” that gives autistic children a character they can call their own.

Thomas: An Autistic Child’s Favourite

A survey by the National Autistic Society found that an astounding 99 per cent of parents with a child on the autism spectrum reported that Thomas & Friends toys were their child’s favourite. Parents also agreed that Thomas & Friends toys provided educational benefits, including helping children learn about colours, language, numbers and read facial expressions.

Realising the positive impact Thomas already has on children with autism, Ian McCue, “Thomas & Friends” senior producer, decided to create Theo, a geared engine with a distinct personality, for the new film. Theo has a blunt way of speaking, feels awkward, enjoys quiet spaces and, with an engine that doesn’t always work as planned, tends to make sudden backwards and forwards movements. Caring and kind, Theo wants to live a safe and quiet life with his friends. Theo is autistic.

The new film also embraces diversity and working together by introducing other “experimental engines.” “Downton Abbey” star Hugh Bonneville voices Merlin, an engine who believes he is a superhero. Another engine, Lexi, expresses herself in a variety of ways using various voices, looks and expressions to figure out what she likes best.

Beloved children’s programme “Sesame Street” recently introduced a character with autism as well. Julia, a Muppet, does things a little differently, according to Elmo, another “Sesame Street” character. The show’s producers worked with several different autism groups to develop Julia’s personality. They also have firsthand experience to draw from in Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon. Gordon’s son has autism.

The Entertainment Industry and Autism

“Thomas & Friends” is certainly not the first or only time the entertainment industry has had a positive effect on children with autism. Sanjay Shah, founder of Autism Rocks, partners with some of the biggest names in the music industry to raise funds and awareness for autism. Performers have included Prince, Nicki Minaj, Bryan Adams and Guns ‘N Roses.

Fundraisers are not the only way in which the entertainment industry explores and supports the world of autism, however. Many feature films and television programmes have portrayed characters on the spectrum with varying degrees of success.

The Films of Autism

“Rain Man” was, for many people, their first exposure to a person with autism. The film starred Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise and became a massive hit. It not only garnered awards and became the highest-grossing film of 1988, but it raised awareness about autism. The film is in essence a road-trip comedy where a self-absorbed brother, Cruise as Charlie, meets his older, autistic savant brother, Hoffman as Raymond, for what he thinks is the first time. The film deals with the interactions and growing relationship between the brothers.

Hoffman did an extraordinary amount of research to prepare for his role. He watched hours of documentaries about real-life savants, studied scientific manuscripts, interviewed psychiatrists and other mental health experts and spent time with autistic savant individuals and their families to witness their interactions and activities firsthand.

Much has changed since the film came out in 1988. And with time comes greater awareness. The film is still recommended as an enlightening and overwhelmingly positive piece by some professionals, but critics see flaws that, unless viewers are aware that the film is entertainment first and accurate portrayal second, negatively impacts the reality of autism.

Leslie Felperin, who has a child on the autism spectrum, writes that viewing “Rain Man” again after her child’s diagnosis, was eye-opening. A film critic by profession, Felperin recalls being “somewhat” impressed by the film when it first came out. Her main concern about the film is how closely it wrapped autism in a veil of savant syndrome. The vast majority of people with autism are not savants. And, in fact, savants may not always be autistic. Dr Darold A. Treffert also points out that though Hoffman’s character in the film is high-functioning, people on the spectrum cover a whole range of abilities, challenges and levels of function. Even with those caveats, Treffert believes the positives in the film – that of raising public awareness and depicting a person with autism in a dignified and respectful manner – make it one of the best ever made.

“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” was released in 1993. The film follows a dysfunctional family where the oldest son, played by Johnny Depp, is tasked with taking care of his 17-year-old autistic brother, played by a 19-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio’s performance was groundbreaking, with experts, such as Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University, stating “If I had not known he was an actor … I would have believed this teenager really had autism.” Baron-Cohen believes the film is as relevant today as it was in 1993. It not only raises awareness about autism but has a powerful message, Baron-Cohen says – people on the spectrum need huge levels of support and so, too, do their families.

A more recent entry into the films about autism, “The Story of Luke” was released in 2012. It tells the story of 25-year-old Luke. Luke has autism and lives with his grandmother. When his grandmother dies, Luke finds himself trying to navigate a world that is completely foreign to him. His two goals in life are the same as most young people his age – to find a job and fall in love. The film’s writer, Alonso Mayo, was inspired by the students at the school his mother runs for the developmentally disabled. Mayo explained in a Disability Scoop interview, “I started seeing these young adults having the same issues everyone else has around relationships and independence.”

From “Thomas & Friends: Journey Beyond Sodor” to the “The Story of Luke” the entertainment industry is growing in its awareness, respect and realism when it portrays characters with autism. The attention and exposure can’t help but give children and adults on the autism spectrum and their families more and better tools to live fuller and richer lives.