Our project is called the Empathy Box, and is meant to help families with children on the autism spectrum spread understanding and gain empathy within their local communities. The Empathy Box itself is simple: a colorful, small-ish box, with a guestbook on the inside and a tracking number on the outside. Through workshops, parents and children can fill their box with items from their personal experience with autism and fill their guestbook with a letter that tells the real story of their experience with autism. From there, they will pass on their box to someone who might learn from it. While our early efforts will be through the parents themselves, we aim to later share through larger institutions, such as school systems and community centers. Those who receive the box then have two options: add to the box and guestbook their own insights and experiences with autism, or simply pass the box on to another person. Through this organic system, where each recipient of the box functions as a link in a larger system of advocacy, we hope to spread empathetic stories of autism to corners where they might otherwise have never reached.
Our team, the Brown/RISD chapter of Design for America, first formed the idea when we surveyed local autism support groups for their wants and needs. We had already thought of all sorts of ways we might be able to help – better classroom designs, children’s’ books, educational toys – but we totally changed the way we looked at the problem once one of the parents told us her story. She told us of a trip to her local supermarket, where, in the middle of an aisle, her son on the spectrum started feeling overloaded by all the sounds and action of her fellow shoppers. People on the spectrum often have problems with sensory overload, reacting strongly to sounds that would go unnoticed by those with neurotypical minds. To her frustration, the people around her started chastising her and giving harsh looks, as if to criticize her for being a bad mother that could not get her unruly child under control. These were people who lived within a 10-minute walk from her, and yet knew nothing about her son’s struggle with autism. More than anything else, she wanted from us a way to tell her neighbors about autism and her life – a way to generate empathy where it was sorely lacking.
After some months of planning, we got our idea off the ground. We made our boxes, and we designed a website – www.empathybox.org – to show them as a gallery. Anyone with a box can download free postage from our site and shoot off their box to our headquarters, where we post their accumulated stories as an exhibit for anyone on the internet to see. What started in Providence families’ neighborhoods can inform people across the world, and hopefully change that world to one more accepting of those on the spectrum.
Design for America:
Rawan Al-Saffar ’13 (RISD, Architecture) firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew Beers ’15 (Brown, Community Health) Andrew_Beers@brown.edu
Samantha Dempsey ’13 (RISD, Illustration) email@example.com
Kelly Hering ’14 (Brown, Engineering) Kelly_Hering@brown.edu
Annie Irwin ’16 (RISD, Textiles) firstname.lastname@example.org
Ariana Martinez ’17 (Dual Degree, Undecided) Ariana_Martinez@brown.edu
Tabitha Yong ’14 (RISD, Graphic Design) email@example.com
SIIHUB Blogpost – Grant Plan
Our team planned to use our Brown Venture Launch Fund grant to get our first Empathy Box workshop off of the ground. Less than two months ago, we held our first workshop at the Autism Project’s “Imagine Walk,” where we set up a stand to hand out the boxes and provided an area for writing and coloring. We estimated in advance that our costs would be:
Manufacture boxes $400-500
Manufacture guestbooks $35-$75
Finish website functionality, buy domain $100-150
Cash bank for pre-paid postage $50-150
Misc. supplies for Imagine Walk [table, tent, banner] $50-100
A generous advance from the BVLF as well as our decision to manually glue on the boxes’ graphics rather than print them allowed us to debut with 150 boxes instead of our original 50 , which in retrospect allowed us to much more closely approximate the demand for the boxes and increase our chances of success with box-return.
After this workshop we are allowing a grace period for people to fill out their guest-books and return their boxes. Currently, we have several routes into the future:
- We would like to do surveys and get feedback on our box, our workshop, and our website, so that for our next event we can have a more interactive and more successful experience.
- We are going to investigate materials and sizes for the Empathy Box to see if we can find a cheaper and more durable solution.
- We are going to start reaching out to some of our contacts in the autism community to see where else we can spread our workshop. We already have an invitation to a local walk in September, but we are also investigating school systems, hospitals, and larger networks of support groups.
- Finally, we know that we cannot work on the Empathy Box project forever. We are going to investigate ways in which this project can be self-sustaining, including online-printable boxes and institutionalization in local schools.
In addition, we must update our website continually over the summer as boxes are mailed in. The content of these first boxes will certainly guide future iterations of our project, and we expect some of our strategy to shift after we receive them.
SIIHUB – Evaluation Report
We have learned so much from our first wave of Empathy Boxes. On the one hand, the workshop was a total success, and rarely has anyone on our team felt so much positive emotion from so many people in just one day. On the other, it is taking longer than expected to get boxes back filled with stories – so we may have to make some changes to our program. Overall, we had these reflections:
- The autism community is extremely open to the idea of the box. We saw many people crying tears of joy after we explained the Empathy Box at the Imagine Walk, and we managed to hand away every single box we made. We made many contacts and received invitations to implement our workshop in schools, hospitals, and other walks. Reflecting upon this, our presentation of the box is likely solid.
- It is taking longer than expected for our boxes to return back to us. We have been sending reminder e-mails, but we understand that the problem could lie in several places: not enough incentive, inability to navigate our website, or misunderstanding of our instructions. It may be that this project is better suited to controlled environments, like a special education classroom. We have also considered adding incentives to returning the box – like a lottery system or a toy mailed back – but this would cost more when we are trying to reduce our spending.
- We need to have our boxes pre-printed. We spent 6 straight hours gluing together our 150 boxes, and we cannot do that every time. Several people we met at the walk and at our local autism support group have given us the name of cheap, local manufacturers, and we are investigating whether or not we can get a charitable cause discount.
- The Empathy Box may have uses outside of autism. Specifically, one woman at the Imagine Walk asked if we could adapt our project to breast cancer, and another asked about groups of kids confined to hospitals because of debilitating diseases. We hesitate to stray from our original goal, but we now know that the essential idea of the box –empathy – is not specific to autism.
Most of these reflections match with our goals mentioned in the previous post: to reduce costs, to find new venues, and to increase the project’s sustainability. However, we had not anticipated the low return-rate we received on the boxes. If you want to reach us about our project with comments, emails us at firstname.lastname@example.org!