Thomas has autism and Alice is a goth

Speaking of cult status, which we were — try to keep up — there are several luminous examples among the screen media — among literature in general, in fact — of titles with especial resonance for certain niche groups. Let me be precise: groups which are obviously united by their neurology or their response to societal norms are often, in ways that are sometimes only loosely intuitive to the outside observer, drawn to specific works of literature. It’s true.

alice-burton-wonderlandFor example, it’s fairly easy to understand why those who identify as Gothic would also identify with, say, Tim Burton. It’s all the black scary things. Simple. But the part that is actually intriguing is the fact that goths everywhere (a certain type of goth, anyway) have an uncannily strong affinity with Alice, adventurer in Wonderland. Crazy blonde hair, powder-blue frock, poor self-control — it is easy to imagine her appealing to some groups. Pre-teen Disney fans, yes; socially inept bookish children, yes; lonely mathematicians with questionable motives, indeed. But the fact remains: dive into the world of Alice appreciation and you’ll inevitably find yourself rubbing shoulders with a gaggle of Gothic fans. Some will be delightful whimsigoths hanging out at Gorey Details; some, enterprising artists sharing their Tenniel hairpieces on Etsy; some lining up to see (and note the felicitous congruence here) Tim Burton’s adaptation, or Erich Hoeber’s, or one by Marilyn Manson too ghastly to link.

Consider another group, autistic people (variously known, depending on the decade, as autists, idiot savants, or the cuttingly dismissive “people with autism”). The modern history of autism, curiously, is punctuated by the 1988 Barry Levinson film Rain Man — for better or worse, the film is a seminal portrayal and a cultural baseline. But the text that unites autistic people with remarkable consistency is Thomas the Tank Engine. This phenomenon is well-documented in the journals. A young man of my acquaintance, usually non-verbal, used to speak mainly in two circumstances: when I pointed to his phone number, and when I got out the Thomas cards and feigned ignorance about which one was Annie and which one was Clarabell. (We taught him PECS: a breakthrough came when, after a long afternoon of picture drills, he stood up and said, with perfect diction, “I want to go home”.)


The reasons for the average autistic person’s affinity with Thomas are many. Ringo Starr narrates beautifully, for one: calm, collected, unobtrusive, he states the obvious, which is reassuring, and doesn’t go on about it, which is a relief. The trains’ emotions are simply classified into different faces, easy to understand. Thomas is happy. Percy is sad. The Fat Controller is angry. Simple. Satisfying.

And such iconic-yet-lefthanded touchstone texts must abound. It’s difficult to explain, otherwise, why certain groups are attached not just to the Jesus movie or Joan of Arc, but to Chariots of Fire. Not just Rent or Priscilla but The Wizard of Oz. Not just Dungeons and Dragons but The Princess Bride. It’s nifty. Also, intriguing. Comment at will.

One thought on “Thomas has autism and Alice is a goth

  1. Smokering says:

    It should be noted that Helpdesk Man, in his youth, was extremely keen on Thomas.

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