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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Mark Sweney

Thomas the Tank Engine to introduce first autistic character

Elliott Garcia, nine, from Reading, as the voice of Bruno the Brake Car in Thomas & Friends.
Bruno the Brake Car is voiced by nine-year-old autistic actor Elliott Garcia from Reading. Photograph: Michael Bowles/Mattel

Thomas the Tank Engine will get its first autistic character in the latest move to diversify on-screen representation in the hit TV series.

Bruno the Brake Car, voiced by nine-year-old autistic actor Elliott Garcia from Reading in the UK, will start appearing in episodes of the latest Thomas & Friends series from later this month.

Mattel, the US toy giant behind franchises including Barbie and Hot Wheels that acquired Thomas the Tank Engine in 2011, said it had “carefully curated Bruno’s character to ensure an accurate fictional representation of autism”.

The company says that Bruno rolls in reverse at the end of the train – “giving him a unique perspective on the world” – and loves schedules, routine, timetables and “when everything goes to plan”.

Bruno can signify to other characters when he is overwhelmed, worried or excited by “flapping his ladders” and has a lantern to “indicate his emotional state”. He sometimes wears ear defenders when there is a loud noise.

Animated characters Bruno the Brake Car and Thomas the Tank Engine
Bruno the Brake Car will have ‘a unique perspective on the world’. Photograph: Mattel

Mattel worked with organisations including Autistic Self Advocacy Network and National Autistic Society UK (NAS UK), which helped cast Garcia in the role of Bruno, to bring the character to the series, which is popular with many autistic children.

The company said its collaborative efforts meant “Bruno opens the door for global audiences” with the character also due to appear in a YouTube series, music album, the Thomas & Friends Storytime podcast and an upcoming special, as well as a range of merchandise due to launch later this year.

Mattel – which has made steps in recent years to diversify the series by introducing more female and ethnically diverse trains, such as Nia from Kenya, Ashima from India and China’s Yong Bao – accepted that Bruno may not resonate with all viewers.

“While Bruno thoughtfully reflects the traits and preferences of some autistic people, one animated character could never encompass the real-life experience of every autistic person,” the company said.

NAS UK said that with 700,000 autistic adults and children across the country, the inclusion of a character in the show was an “amazing moment for autistic people”.

“It is important that everyone sees autistic characters on our screens because there are 160,000 school-age autistic children in the UK and they want to see their stories told,” said Tom Purser, the charity’s head of guidance, volunteering and campaigns.

“But it is also important that non-autistic children get insight and understanding into what it can be like to be autistic.”

Other popular children’s TV series have taken similar steps in recent years to improve representation on screen. In 2020, the hit show Paw Patrol introduced a disabled puppy called Rex, although he only appears sporadically.

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