Gamifying Empathy

My son was diagnosed with “high-functioning autism” when he was a toddler. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on one specific aspect of what that means: a lack of empathy. Mostly though, I want to share a system we have invented to help him with it.

First, let me explain a bit about what “lack of empathy” actually means in his case. In simple terms, it doesn’t naturally cross his mind to try to figure out how what he says and does will affect other people. If he is specifically thinking about it, then yes, he can figure it out, and plan how to behave accordingly. So, in a classroom, for example, where he knows there are specific social rules, he mostly does fine (unless he gets distracted). Same thing when we have company over for dinner. Since he is never required to join us, it’s always a conscious choice for him to engage with our guests, and he generally does well.

However, when he’s not thinking about it, how his words and actions affect others simply doesn’t cross his mind. So, blowing his nose without a tissue continues, despite many outraged protests from us. Same with washing hands after using the bathroom. Likewise, handling our dog roughly continues, despite countless reminders. On and on. And, when we remind him, we get nothing but dismissive sass. Even more frustrating, this has all amplified as he’s reached his teenage years. He has even been able to clearly articulate that he simply doesn’t care that these things (and many others) bother us.

What to do?

Clearly, one could take a punitive route. Heap punishments upon punishments until he’s fearful enough of incurring more that he obeys. My wife and I both find this approach repulsive and sad. We could just ignore it. But, the world at large simply won’t tolerate this kind of behavior, so we’d be doing him a massive disservice by allowing him to not learn this lesson while the consequences are so mild. Not to mention, neither of us could bear to live that way. We needed another way.

The problem is that our feelings don’t register in his value system, and—even more than that—he’s very bad at judging how something will affect us, even if he’s inclined to try. So, our system needs to take a long-term value which is currently outside his ability to project, and map it into a value hierarchy that he does understand right now.

The Goodwill Game

My son is crazy for games. Chess, board games, card games, you name it. He even invents his own. And, he’s a master at almost all of them almost immediately. So, we cooked up a game which helps him “win” at getting along with other people (my wife and I, in this case).

As parents, we need to ensure he learns how to treat people in his environment well. However, he often lacks the insight into how his behavior affects other people, which makes it hard for him to know how well he is doing. This game is intended to provide direct feedback—in a quantifiable way—of how his actions affect the emotional well-being of people around him: both positive and negative. As this is an abstract skill which doesn’t map well to his current values, the points accumulated will be periodically converted into things he does currently value, to help him better relate in terms which are more immediately understandable.

Points Awarded Scale

To set up the game, we started by creating a Points Awarded Scale. All of us sat down together and came up with positive & negative things to put on the scale, and agreed upon the number of points gained & lost for each.

While the points may seem arbitrary: they really aren’t. They quantify how a particular behavior makes us feel in a way that he can understand. So, mildly annoying things (e.g., stomping around the house) have a small negative value, while awesome things (e.g., volunteering to clear up dog vomit) have a large positive value. Apologizing immediately and sincerely (something which is very hard for him) neutralizes any negative points: because they neutralize the bad feelings for us. So the whole points system allows him to better understand how his actions affect us.

As an aside, it was immensely enlightening for him to just make the scale! He was often surprised that we actually cared so much about various items on there, and it frequently provoked extended conversations about why that was the case.

Here’s a small sample of our current scale:

positive negative
1 — humorous banter -1 — reminder to complete chore
2 — saying thank you -2 — isolated rude comment
2 — responding to text message -2 — ignoring a text message
3 — chore completed on time -3 — snarky response to reminders
5 — asking for on a task when needed -5 — dismissive/rude response to feedback
8 — independent follow-through on feedback -8 — performing a chore badly after a reminder
10 — volunteering to help -10 — performing a request in a snotty manner
-20 — attempting to cheat this system

Point Redemption Scale

While the first scale does a great job of helping him understand how he’s affecting us, it still doesn’t bring our feelings into his value hierarchy. So, we added the Point Redemption Scale so that he can “cash in”: thus bringing how he affects us back into a realm that relates to values he currently holds.

The scale has two parts: benefits and punishments. If he accumulates enough points, he can redeem them for things he likes on the benefits side of the scale (e.g., pizza for lunch). If he winds up in negative points, then we choose a punishment from the other side of the scale (e.g., no internet for 24 hours).

As with the first scale, we all sat down together and decided how many points all the various benefits and punishments were worth, and everyone started out in agreement about everything on both sides. However, this scale is the opposite of the first scale in that the first was a subjective measure of our preferences, while this one is a subjective measure of his preferences. All the benefits are things he likes, scaled to his level of preference. Likewise, all the punishments are things that he dislikes, again on his own subjective scale of preference.

This is how the mapping finally occurs. Our subjective preferences are mapped to points on a scale which is public and knowable to him. His preferences are mapped into a scale which is calibrated with ours. So, now he can see a direct correlation between his value hierarchy and our own.

Here’s a sample of our current redemption scale:

benefits punishments
25 — 1 pt gelato 20 — 24h without internet
50 — pizza for lunch 50 — 24h without computer & iPad
75 — $10 extra allowance 75 — 24h restricted to his room
100 — extra family TV episode 100 — 2h extra chores
200 — 1.5h of 3-player board games 200 — 24h restricted to guest room

Running the Game

In order to actually run the game, we adopted the following rules:

  • points gained & lost are awarded in real time (as much as possible) by referencing the Points Awarded Scale
  • points are recorded on a chart which is accessible to the entire family
  • once per day, we all get together and make sure to capture all the points for that day while our memory is still fresh (in case anything is missed)
  • once per week, we tally up all the points gained and lost
  • if there are positive points, then our son can redeem them for items listed in the benefits side of the Point Redemption Scale. He may also bank points for specific items which are “too expensive”
  • if there are negative points, then we select items from the punishments side of the scale
  • points reset to zero each week

How is it working?

We used something very similar to this when our son was much younger (around 10 or so), and we’ve just started in again at around 17. It worked very well when he was little, and it seems to be working even better now. By having a short list of things to be mindful about, it doesn’t seem to be so daunting and nebulous about how to get along with us well. As I mentioned before, he’s also super keen on games, so making this into a game he can win is compelling. I think that—even more than cashing in the points—is what makes this work for him.

I think the real benefit, though, has come from the conversations we had to set things up. We clearly understand one another a lot better now, and we’re able to refer back to the various scales when talking about things. Moreover, when some new behavior comes up which is good or bad, we have a quantifiable scale to relate it to (even if it’s not actually part of the game). That makes conversations about how his actions affect us go SO MUCH more smoothly.

The End Game

Obviously, this is a tool to get past a brief hump we’re having as a family. We used it for a while when he was little because we were having a similar kind of problem. Eventually, he picked up better habits, and we let the game fall by the wayside. When we started having the same problems again recently, I suggested we dust this off, and give it a try again. I fully expect that we’ll use it for a little while until he internalizes some better habits, and we’ll again set it aside.

Except… do you ever really set it aside? While we, as adults, don’t actually tally points and what-not, we certainly do have a sense of “fairness” or getting “value for value” with our spouses, co-workers, and friends. When a relationship feels “unfair”, or like one person is doing all the work, we feel discontented and allow those relationships to wither. In extreme cases, we actually cut them off. Perhaps a topic for another post!