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Thomas the Tank Engine and Peppa Pig welcome friends with autism and 2 mommies

Bruno the Brake Car is the first autistic character on the <em>Thomas & Friends</em> TV series. "He is funny, smart, and he's a very relaxed character," says Elliott Garcia, who voices the character for the show's U.K. version.
Michael Bowles
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Mattel
Bruno the Brake Car is the first autistic character on the Thomas & Friends TV series. "He is funny, smart, and he's a very relaxed character," says Elliott Garcia, who voices the character for the show's U.K. version.

Updated September 7, 2022 at 12:38 PM ET

Two beloved children's TV shows are adding diverse new characters that reflect real people more fully: Thomas & Friends will have its first autistic train character, and Peppa Pig included a same-sex couple in an episode that aired in the United Kingdom on Tuesday.

Bruno the Brake Car — a new character voiced by a child actor with autism— is about to roam the rails on the Island of Sodor, joining Thomas the Tank Engine in the long-running Thomas & Friends.

Bruno is set to debut in his first episode on Monday, Sept. 12, in the U.S., and later this month in Canada and the U.K. The U.S. version of Bruno is voiced by Chuck Smith, a 10-year-old from Toronto, Canada. In the U.K., the role went to Elliott Garcia, a 9-year-old from Reading, in southeast England.

"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."

Chuck Smith, 10, has long loved trains and is thrilled to make his acting debut by voicing the Bruno character in the U.S., Mattel says.
/ Mattel
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Mattel
Chuck Smith, 10, has long loved trains and is thrilled to make his acting debut by voicing the Bruno character in the U.S., Mattel says.

Peppa Pig's friend says she has two mothers

While Bruno's arrival was hailed in joint press releases on both sides of the Atlantic, the producers of Peppa Pig, another U.K. export, took a more low-key approach to adding diversity, with a subtle mention of a same-sex couple.

In an episode titled "Families" that aired on Britain's Channel 5, Peppa's friend Penny Polar Bear is part of a playgroup where young animals such as Suzy Sheep and Freddy Fox share drawings of their families.

"I'm Penny Polar Bear. I live with my mummy and my other mummy," Penny said as she showed off a drawing of herself in the kitchen with her parents, according to Cambridgeshire Live. "One mummy is a doctor and one mummy cooks spaghetti, I love spaghetti."

As the U.K.'s Pink News site notes, an online petition has been urging the show's producers to include same-sex parents for some two years.

"Well what do you know? My kids saw the first same-sex couple on Peppa Pig and the world didn't end," one British commenter said via Twitter.

On 'Thomas,' Bruno will show his emotions

Thomas & Friends is produced by Mattel Television, which says the Bruno character was developed with the input of autistic writers and advocacy groups, including the Autism Self Advocacy Network, Easterseals Southern California, and the U.K.'s National Autistic Society.

The TV show's train engines often cope with setbacks as they keep up with Sodor's passenger and freight schedule. The show's producers say nuances in how Bruno faces those situations might help autistic kids see themselves in the character, from his sense of humor and attention to detail to his dislike of loud noises.

"He can flap his ladders to tell you if he's upset or if he's really excited, so he can use his items to show you how he's feeling," Garcia said. "His ear defenders, I do relate to, because if there's a really loud noise, I can't cope. I can get quite worried about things, I have to think of new strategies, same as Bruno."

"Bruno is a joyful, pun-making brake car" who helps other trains keep heavy cargo loads stable and likes to stick to schedules, Mattel said as it announced the character.

It's the latest move to add diversity and representation to stories about Thomas the Tank Engine, the plucky train that the Rev. W. Awdry created for his son in 1945. Looking to modernize the show, its producers have in recent years worked toward gender balance and included characters from Asia, Africa and Australia.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.