Autism Awareness Month: The Evergreen Appeal of Toca Boca Apps for My Teen Son

Parker Barry

I didn’t know anything about iOS apps a few years ago, when my son Leo began using a first-generation iPad. So I asked a speech therapist friend which apps she was using with her autistic students.

“Toca Tea Party!” she said. “Trust me. He’ll love it.”

“He’s a 10-year-old boy,” I said. “Why would he want to play tea party? He’s never been interested in tea parties before.”

Trust me,” she said.

And she was right. Leo loved Toca Tea Party, not because the app was about a tea party, but because the app itself was cleverly designed, easy to use, did not require reading and was silly good fun. Leo was able to play Toca Tea Party with no instruction or support, which is a really big deal for a guy who requires assistance in so many areas of his life. And he’s not unique: Independence is a precious thing for many autistic kids’ self-confidence, as well as their sense of personhood. I was surprised and delighted to find such a nifty opportunity for Leo to have that independence.

Leo continued to explore and enjoy Toca Boca apps like Toca Hair Salon, because their intuitive interfaces and international audience-oriented design kept them accessible to him. When Toca Band and its free-form music collage wackiness came out, our tunes-loving dude was able to dive in instantly, again with no direction, but with quite a lot of glee.

It’s been a few years since Leo’s first Toca Tea Party encounter. He is now a teenager. And he still plays with Toca Boca apps nearly every day. Not just classic favorites, but newer ones, like Toca Cars. And I’m fine with that. Because I’m fine with him pursuing his own interests and directing his own free time. I’m fine with him being independent. I’m determined that he gets to be independent.

I worry sometimes that parents of autistic kids limit their kids’ entertainment choices to those considered age appropriate. But what, I ask you, is considered age appropriate these days? I am just as likely to wear a Totoro or Adventure Time shirt as any of my kids. Leo’s sister — who does not have an autism diagnosis —  memorized every disease in the Mayo Clinic Family Health Guide when she was 10, and quizzed everyone she encountered about their potential symptoms. She and I are both considered geeks because we like liking things. I think Leo should be allowed to like liking things, too. On his own terms. Terms Toca Boca apps help make possible.

Shannon Des Roches Rosa is a writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her never-boring family. She is the senior editor of Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism,


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