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!

One of my parents died

I just found out that one of my parents died last night.

Fortunately, it wasn’t my father. He’s been the one solid backdrop of my life from the moment I was born. For a long stretch between when he divorced when I was 5 and remarried when I was 12, he was the only solid thing in my life. He’s a man of simple virtues, deeply held. He instilled in me, from my earliest memories, a deep and life-long value of honesty, hard work, humor, and family. To this day, I marvel at how he raised two challenging young boys on his own, while dealing with the pain of a messy divorce. He means a great deal to me, and I’d be a wreck right now if I’d just lost him. I’m getting choked up right now even thinking about the possibility. Fortunately, it wasn’t my father.

Fortunately, it wasn’t my mother. I only met her at 11 years old when she and my father started dating. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to jump into a family with two almost feral boys and with a father working two jobs to keep it all together, but she did. She instilled in me a love of culture: fine music, theater, fine dining, cultured manners. She also turned me from a bright, but indifferent student to someone who excelled in school and graduated with multiple honors. On my 18th birthday, we went down to the city hall and adopted each other, and she’s been my mother ever since. I’d be devastated if I’d just lost her. Fortunately, it wasn’t my mother.

It was my father’s first wife, my natural mother. She walked out on our family when I was 5. She was already seeing another man who was heavily into drugs and an alcoholic. Soon after, they married and moved away. My memories of the rare occasions when my brother and I would go stay with them are not pleasant. He was abusive to my mother, and while not abusive to us, still terrifying. She continued the path of drugs and alcoholism as I became an adult, and started my own family. Right around the time my own son was born, I broke off my relationship with her forever.

That was over 15 years ago. I haven’t seen her, or talked to her since. The little bits and pieces I hear though my cousins have made it clear that nothing had changed with her. And, last night, her long-abused body finally gave up.

Am I sad? No, not really. That may seem callous now, but I did my grieving for her as a 5-year-old boy. And, how did I grieve. I didn’t understand who she was, or why she was gone, but my mother—half of my universe of trusted people—was gone. I wished and longed for my parents to be reunited. No matter the shouting and arguments. Eventually, as I grew older and started to understand more, that feeling settled into anger. Finally, as an adult facing those same choices, my feelings changed into disgust.

So, to me, my natural mother died over 30 years ago. I cried. I mourned. And I finished along time ago. Now, I don’t have anything left for the person who didn’t want to be my mother all those years ago.


My real parents are those people who choose to love me. They are the people who gave of their own character to shape mine, and to set me on the best course in life that they could possibly manage. They are the people who have walked the tightrope with me of growing up and striking out on my own. They’ve been with me as I’ve built my career, and as I’ve grown my own family. I literally have tears streaming down my face as I write this: the depth of feeling I have for these two people is so overwhelming.

I regret that my experience with my natural mother has made it difficult to say in person to my real parents what they so richly deserve:

I love you both much more deeply than I could ever express in person, and much more than these written words covey. Thank you for choosing to be my parents.

Being the “second” parent

About 16 years ago, when my wife, Rachel, and I were contemplating having our first child, we talked a lot about how we would share the responsibilities for parenting.  In the end, she decided that she’d like to leave full-time hospital nursing to be able to spend full-time with our future child.  A few years after he was born, he was diagnosed as having high-functioning autism.  Needless to say, the job of parenting went from pleasantly challenging to downright daunting.

At the same time, I was building my career as a software engineer / manager.  It was (and still is) very demanding work which often requires a fair bit of overtime, and leaves me with very little time for anything else: even being a father.

So, the dynamic in our family is that my wife has taken about 75% of the burden of parenting, while I’ve taken on the rest.  This includes a lot of things: physical care (esp. during younger years), playing / supervising play, driving to appointments & activities, food preparation (and actual feeding, at least early on).  To be fair to myself, I’ve always shouldered my share of those tasks when I’m home.  But, the reality has always been that I’ve worked full-time out of the house, and I simply haven’t been physically present to do those things nearly so often as Rachel has.

Which leads me to my point.  In our family, I’m the de facto “second” parent.

Being the “second” parent is not remotely the same thing as being an absentee, uninvolved, or disinterested parent.  It also does not mean that I don’t carry my own weight in household chores or coping with parenting challenges.  But there are a few important differences.

First, it is completely true most routine decisions are made without my direct input.  I’ve always felt welcome to comment on them or suggest improvements, but my wife nearly always handles these out without any need for me to weigh in.

Second, my wife and I routinely set time aside (our date night) to talk over those decisions which aren’t routine.  Whether this is making some choice about schooling, correcting some nascent behavior problem, helping our son get started with a new activity, or altering some routine around the house, we always have a time and manner to make sure we address them together.  Often, these are situations where my wife will raise the issue, and I’ll give my feedback: leaving the final call in her court.  Most of the time, though, we come to a consensus on the spot.

Third, I have to be more deliberate about spending time with my son.  Since my calendar is often pretty full, it’s frequently the odd moments here and there which I need to capitalize on.  As one would expect, the exact form this takes has changed over the years.  Recently, he has begun to share my interest in fantasy & science fiction, movies, video games, and a number of other things.  So, recently, these odd moments have taken the form of late-night conversations which range all over, but most often start with one of those shared interests.

Finally, I’m often the member of the tag-team who is “tagged in” when things get intense.  Being on the autism spectrum, our son’s tantrums have always been intense, and they still can be.  By the point when my wife is getting frustrated and starting to lose patience, I’ll jump in and take over the conversation.  Both because of my particular personality, and especially because I’m “tagging in” fresh, I’m able to remain calm and detached from his intense emotions.  In these cases, I sit with him and help him calm down by gently refusing to react to his intense emotions (sometimes over the course of an hour or more), and by helping him talk though the issue.  These conversations often get very philosophical and talk about ethics, character, and principles for addressing the situation at hand.


It’s easy to dismiss the “second” parent.  In fact, the disconnected, bread-winning father figure, by now, is beyond clichéd.  It’s also not how things have to be.  Whether the “second” parent is the mother or father—and I know at least one family where dad stays home while mom works outside the house—both can be full partners as “the parents”.  It takes some deliberate choices of who’s going to step forward, and how often, and for what things, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an equal partnership in keeping a home and raising a family.  So, all of this is really just to say: while the roles are different, there really isn’t any “second” parent.