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Danni Button

Thomas the Tank Engine Adds an Autistic Character

Look, trains are and always will be cool. There's no way around it -- kids and adults have been obsessed with the locomotive since it first hit the rails in the 1800s. Now that's pop culture staying power!

Possibly the most well-known train is also the star of one of the most popular children's franchises on TV. Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends have been loved by kids across the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. since the mid-20th century. Thomas' story started in 1943, when Rev. Wilbert Vere Awdry created a series of trains with faces and personalities to cheer up his son, Christopher, who was sick with the measles.

In 2011, Mattel (MAT) acquired Thomas the Tank Engine. In a £426 million ($494 million) deal, Mattel bought Hit properties, a company that included Thomas, Barney the purple dinosaur, and Fireman Sam. Now, these popular kids' IPs belong to the same character library as Barbie, Fisher-Price, and Hot Wheels in a move to help the company compete with other toymakers like Disney (DIS) and Hasbro (HAS).

Last year, a new "Thomas & Friends" show called "All Engines Go" brought the long-time beloved kids' show to a new generation of viewers. And Season 2's Sept. 12 premiere is on the horizon, along with a new character that an important subset of Thomas fans will really appreciate.


Meet Bruno the Brake Car

"Thomas & Friends" Season 2 will feature the introduction of Bruno the Brake Car, the show's first character who lives with autism. Bruno's creation is a team-up between the showrunners and autism advocacy groups including the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and the U.K.'s National Autistic Society. 

With the help of organizations like these, Bruno will have a uniquely relatable way of expressing his emotions and reacting to the comings and goings of the Island of Sodor, where Bruno and his new friends live. Bruno is the Brake Car, so he rolls in reverse at the end of the train. According to Mattel, this gives Bruno a "unique perspective on the world." 

Bruno also loves some of the trademark things necessary to a successful train route, including schedules, routines, and timetables. He's also equipped with a lantern and side-ladders that help him express his emotions. He can sometimes feel overwhelmed when he's overstimulated by things like loud noises.

The character will also be voiced by two young autistic voice actors. In the U.S., Bruno is voiced by the 10-year-old Toronto resident Chuck Smith. In the U.K., 9-year-old Elliot Garcia will lend his talents to the production.

"Bruno is a Brake Car, and he is a new friend for Thomas and his friends, and he's also autistic, like me," Garcia said in a news release sent to NPR. "He is funny, smart, and he's a very relaxed character. He can get really overwhelmed, he can get worried, and he uses comedy to get past situations."

'Thomas & Friends' Are Icons in the Autistic Community

Thomas and his friends have a long-standing history with the autistic community. In 2007, the National Autistic Society polled parents of autistic children, 58% of whom reported that Thomas was the first character their children liked and identified with. The same parents said that the show's linear storylines, character color coding, and the clear emotional expressions of each train made "Thomas & Friends" a great match for their children.

Since then, Mattel and Thomas have paired with different organizations to show support for children with autism in some impactful ways. In 2010, the National Autistic Society and Thomas joined up to celebrate the Tank Engine's 65th anniversary by hosting a build party for the longest Thomas the Train ever built -- and as a bonus, it was made out of cake.

In April, Mattel and the National Autistic Society released a line of "Thomas & Friends" sensory clothing for kids who struggle with tags, buttons, or other sensory issues associated with getting dressed in the morning. It looks like these same kids sporting sensory-comforting Thomas gear may get clothing and merchandise featuring Bruno, a character with whom they'll no doubt identify.

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