Autism Awareness Month: Trains and the Human Mind

A few years ago Toca Boca’s CEO, Björn, came to me with a short brief:

How about a train app, JP?

At the time our company was young enough that we hadn’t actually thought much about trains yet. But of course trains are a classic subject for play, so a few days later I was tasked with sketching on the play design for a train app.

Now the first thing you have got to find out when you make an app for kids on a new subject is what it is that attracts children to it. You have to understand this on a deep level.

So the question I was grappling with was “Why do kids love trains?”

Why do kids love trains?

I did as all great thinkers do when we have a something weighing our minds down: I entered my query into an online search engine.

The third or so hit was a text written by James Williams, an young individual with autism who consults and speaks publicly on the issue. He explained how people with autism think:

“Our minds are like trains, going from one point to another along a designated track. This is perhaps one reason why autistic children like trains so much.”

This was big! You see, when you create any piece of culture you have to think about how you want the person who experiences it to feel. Giggly? Scared? Puzzled? Sad? Angry? It really doesn’t matter. As long as you make people feel something it will resonate with some of them and become significant to those people.

I had considered other options for the play design such as creating an experience where you lay out tracks, customize trains or even having trains with humanized features. But all of those idea had to go. It was the feeling part I had been struggling with, and James Williams’ insight was the piece of the puzzle I had been looking for.

The answer I had found was that this app would aim to get you in that zone of constant unstoppable motion. We had to make you feel as if you WERE the train. That’s why if you play Toca Train today you will see things from the perspective of the train at all times. We never leave the tracks, constantly zooming through the landscape. Stopping only when YOU want it to.

We had to make you feel as if you WERE the train.

Toca Train gives kids control over a powerful machine that doesn’t stop unless they want it to. In a world that is constantly changing, calling for our attentions and demanding things of us, it sure is nice to be able to get into a mind state where nothing else matters, where things are predictable and where I am the master of my own domain.

Perhaps that is why Toca Train has has become so popular with many children, some off, some on, the autism spectrum.

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What Does “Childism” Mean?

Childism is the radical notion that kids need to be respected as human beings. It states that despite differences in size, experience and power, adults and children are inherently of equal worth, and that kids’ perspectives and experiences should thus be considered on the same merits as those of adults. Childism could also be defined as the advocacy of the rights of children.

The opposite force is adultism, a systemic condition that promotes stereotyping and disempowering of the young. An adultist positions adults as superior to children regardless of merits. The effort to understand an issue from the kid’s perspective is seen as potentially corrosive to the adult’s superior social status. Compromise with a child is therefor considered defeat.

Some have given the opposite definition of childism, defining it rather as one would define adultism — as the discrimination and oppression of the young. The most notable proponent of this alternate definition is Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, an American academic and psychotherapist. In her remarkably well researched book “Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children” she makes the argument that prejudice exists towards children as a group and that it is comparable to racism, sexism and homophobia.

While I don’t disagree with the late Young-Bruehl in her analysis, I suggest using the much more widely accepted term adultism to define existing prejudice against the young, and reserving the term childism for the formation of a positive movement for the rights of children.

I thus state: I am a childist, not an adultist!

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Kids Are People: A Radical Idea

As a creator of children’s interactive products, I sometimes get the question “What’s up with Scandinavia?!” Those people are surprised by the fact that LEGO, Minecraft and Toca Boca, three Scandinavian brands, are all at the top of the charts in their respective categories.

LEGO this year became the world’s largest toy company, surpassing Mattel. Minecraft … well, we all know about Minecraft; I don’t need to talk to its success. And little Toca Boca, a company that released its first product less than four years ago, is now one of the largest developer of apps for kids, second only to Disney. Is it all a coincidence? I don’t think so.

One might attribute Scandinavia’s success in children’s interactive media and toys to the fact that we are highly technological societies, or to that we value design highly, but that would only be part of the explanation. I’d like to argue that it also has very much to do with that we are slightly less hierarchical cultures and thus have more egalitarian societies. This makes it easier for us to understand those who are inevitably at the bottom of that hierarchy, the children. In a more egalitarian society people tend to be less concerned about getting and keeping power and more sympathetic to one another’s needs.

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In order to stay in power those at the top of the hierarchy will create ideologies that cement their power — ideologies that state it as a natural fact that their group should rule. It becomes important to differentiate themselves from the others by gender, ethnicity or religion. Most of these ideologies have names: sexism, racism, etc.

“Ageism” doesn’t tell the whole story

For discrimination based on age we say ageism. But it is really very different to not be able to get a job because you are 63 than it is to not be taken seriously in school because you are 8. There exists, however, a separate word already — albeit not commonly used — to describe prejudice and oppression against the young and that word is adultism.

Adultism can be described as the idea that adults know best and children should just do what they are told. Period.

This idea is alive and well in most parts of the world today. How else could a book like “Go The F–k To Sleep” ever become No. 1 on the New York Times best sellers list? If you’re not familiar with it here’s an excerpt from the book:

All the kids from daycare are in dreamland.

The froggie has made his last leap.

Hell no, you can’t go to the bathroom.

You know where you can go? The f–k to sleep.

“Go The F–k To Sleep” is an illustrated book for adults that has been on the Top 5 in the Family category forever. Its sequel “You Have To F–king Eat” is also currently in the Top 10. “Brilliant!” says a review on the cover, and while I can see it’s clever, I just can’t laugh at it because it is so disrespectful to children in my mind. It has only the adult perspective, and a book written like this about any other group of people is unimaginable.

There is no way books like this would make it to market in Scandinavia. The book and the jokes are adultist and I cannot laugh because I have come to firmly believe in childism.

Adultism can be described as the idea that adults know best and children should just do what they are told. Period.

“Childism”: We should deal with kids as equals

Childism is the radical idea that kids are people; thus follows we should always try to see things from their perspective when interacting with them. We should deal with kids as equals — forget our pride and talk to each other. There is no “because I said so” and then that’s it. We talk. I now think of the relationship to my daughters as the one to my wife. How do we solve things? We talk.

In Scandinavian countries we see things from the children’s perspective a little more than others. Here are three examples from my native country of Sweden that illustrate our more childist viewpoint:

Education. In Sweden we still trust children to learn on their own more than in other countries. In school, children enjoy free play and basically no academics until age 7. There are no grades until age 12. Schools have free, play-based after school programs for all. Of course it’s still possible to go through 12 years of schooling without anyone asking you what you’re interested in learning. We are still adultist, just less so.

Parenting. The city of Stockholm offers free parenting classes that are advertised with the slogan “What kind of a parent do you want to be?” Inside a testimonial reads: “‘Now it is easier to agree and compromise’ — Father of two, age 44.” I just can’t imagine encountering a publicly sponsored parenting course encouraging parents to compromise with their children in many other places, but parents and children in Scandinavia have quite egalitarian relationships. You are more likely to find a father outside the supermarket discussing with his son why it’s not possible to buy candy than you are to find one yelling at his offspring for wanting to have sweets. However I have witnessed a father lying by saying he didn’t have any more money for candy, because we even if we are less adultist, we are a little meek at times.

City planning. In the 1970s, when Stockholm was being rapidly urbanized, the local government set a goal that there should be no more than 400 meters to the nearest playground for 90 percent of children in the city. To this day, if you walk through Stockholm you’ll see the city kept its promise. Children make up 10 percent to 20 percent of the population, and perhaps the right thing would’ve been to devote a proportionate amount of real estate to them. We’re not that enlightened yet, but we did more than most cities, because we are a little more prone to seeing the world from the children’s perspective.

Childism is the radical idea that children are people.

I would like to argue that today most adults are as far off, and just as wrong, in our view of children as Europeans were 400 years ago when when they first encountered people from other continents. We simply don’t understand children. Just like when we encountered native cultures we just gaze at them and realize that we are more advanced and powerful, based on our own criteria, and so we assume natural superiority. The effects of the assumption of superiority of other groups of people have had dire consequences for humanity, and we will solve no significant problems in education or parenting before we realize that we are suffering from something very similar when it comes to how we view our young: adultism.

It’s about trusting and respecting children

The reason LEGO, Minecraft and Toca Boca are so successful is simply because they are all the result of a less adultist society. LEGO founder Ole Kirk Christiansen’s motto was “Only the best is good enough.” In the early days, when the company made wooden toys for children, he had the toys painted three times. When his son oversaw a batch and bragged he only painted them twice to save time, Ole Kirk had him unpack the whole train and put that third layer on all of the toys.

When you fully trust and respect children you will put all the resources you have to make a high-quality product for them. And the ultimate quality that a product can have is giving children freedom. Freedom? Yes, it is the freedom that LEGO, Minecraft and Toca Boca offer the children who use these products that make them so appreciated.

Children are told what to do all day by adults, whether it’s getting ready for school, following the teachers instructions, doing homework or participating in adult-led after school activities. When they do have that precious time to play freely it is priceless to have a toy that is powerful and that can yet be used in near infinite ways. No one is telling them what to do or how to play! What a relief!

LEGO, Minecraft and Toca Boca are the result of someone trusting and respecting children enough to give them the freedom to play and participate on their own terms. Two eight-stud Lego bricks can be combined in 24 different ways, and three eight-stud LEGO bricks in 1,060 ways. Minecraft is an infinite self-generating world inspired by Markus “Notch” Persson’s forest adventures as a child. In Toca Kitchen 2, there are no recipes to follow; each of the 11 food items can be prepared by using five different kitchen appliances in any order. As much as possible it resembles cooking in a real kitchen.

When you fully trust and respect children you will put all the resources you have to make a high-quality product for them.

Whether you want to have a better relationship with your own children, or with your young customers, I suggest that you examine yourself for traces of adultism. Are you controlling or empowering children? Are you making decisions for them or letting them learn by making their own? You will undoubtedly find some adultism in your attitudes and behavior, as I have in mine. On a daily basis I notice in the interaction with my daughters that I haven’t been able to fully get rid of my adultism, but I’m steadily getting better at listening to them and not defaulting to using my adult veto. I use it less and less, and our relationship is so much better for it. It took until 2015, but it is with pride that I can now state:

I believe in Childism.

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Boredom Is a Feeling

“Dad, I’m bored.”

I must have heard it 100 times by now. Why do we hear this so often, as parents?

I believe the reason we hear it so often is because boredom is not a concrete problem that always has the same fixed solution. Boredom is the sense of being in a void, in a place where everything that matters has been done or is not worth doing right now. The batteries are empty. Help!

The good news is that when you state to someone that you are bored it implies that you sense there is a way out, but that you just need a little help. There’s hope!

OK, your child just told you she is bored. What to do? If we accept that boredom is a feeling…

The last thing you want to do is judge them for how they feel.

Otherwise…

  1. The next time they feel this way they are not going to tell you about it. Or…
  2. They might not even admit to themselves they are feeling this way.

Both of those outcomes are terrible in the long run for your mutual relationship and the other person’s development.

When someone tells you how they feel, you want to listen. I’m terrible at it, but I know the theory of how to listen and that has saved me many times. The key to listening is to not try to educate the other person, but to empathize with them. More concretely, try to reflect with your own words what you think they are feeling, to make sure you understood them right.

“It sounds like you feel like you have nothing fun to do?”

That’s probably pretty much all you have to do. Boredom is a fleeting feeling. What’s important is that you just avoided judging your child as lazy or unimaginative, and you just evaded conflict by not making them feel guilty for not helping you with the garden or doing their homework.

Offer to help your kid to come up with something to do. Sometimes we just need a sounding board or a little of that human touch to get out of a small rut.

If you managed to empathize with their feeling they are much more likely to take you up on the request to help you out with what you’re doing, because it will be easier for them to feel empathy with your situation in return.

In short, don’t judge your child for being bored. Show empathy and your home will soon be a more fun and loving place!


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