Autism Awareness Month: Trains and the Human Mind

Find out the story behind Toca Train.

Parker Barry

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.


Related stories