“I’m so proud of you; we have to celebrate today,” says Cristina Faulkner, chairperson of Loyola High School’s Fine and Performing Arts Department, to the 11 mostly seniors in her Feb. 28 design class. It is 9:15 on a Friday morning, and the boys have gathered around a big box of donuts set on a wood table in a basement room.

But it’s the other boxes — colored on the outside with bright puzzle pieces, striking letters and other attention-getting graphics — that are really the focus right now. The “empathy boxes,” a little smaller than a shoebox, are scattered about the room, which is decorated with art posters, color charts, pencil drawings and art books. In the corner of the room that used to be a science lab stands a holdover from past years, a human-size skeleton.

Faulkner, a former Disney toy designer, is describing an email she got yesterday from the month-long project’s partners at the Design For America team from the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University. She reports that the message admitted the high-powered college team was reluctant at first to join with high school kids on an effort to raise awareness about a sensitive subject like autism.

Some of the students give each other the adults-don’t-know-anything look.  

“But we set a new precedent, because they couldn’t get over how brilliant you were about it,” she continues, “and the prototypes really impressed them as well.”

The Design For America team had created an empathy box for the parents of autistic children who wanted to share their daily challenges as well as joys. The Loyola class, however, took it one step further. They designed empathy boxes that would engage other teenagers like themselves to become more aware of the developmental disability that affects about one in 88 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And they picked special items to go in the boxes to make them even more intriguing.

Turning to a student, Faulkner asks, “Wasn’t it somebody at your table, Stephen, who said, ‘People already know about that?’”

“Yeah,” Stephen Dubb admits with a sheepish grin. “It was something that we kind of tried to figure out, because we really didn’t know much about it. But we tried to act like we did.”

“Oh, is that what that was about?” she replies, breaking up.

Stephen notes how “learning about this project and trying to do it over the course of three weeks, we’ve learned a lot more. I learned that it, like, can happen at random times. And I learned that it occurs mostly in children at first. And then it’s really hard to tell if someone has been diagnosed with autism because it’s really hard to tell. And most parents are in denial of their kids having the disorder.”

From a website, students gathered and edited individual stories on autistic children. Every student also interviewed two or three people to see how much they knew about the subject. And at the end of an enclosed empathy booklet, they answered “reflection” questions on what they learned about autism and how they picked objects to make their chosen story even more real.

Stephen found out, “which was kind of interesting,” that his parents didn’t really know all that much about autism, either. But they learned together with him.

Caring hands ‘everywhere’

Writing from the point of view of a dad, the story Rich Windisch put in his empathy box was about a make-believe son named David. It told the painstaking tale of how the wife and mother suspected something wasn’t right with her son. But it was only later that medical specialists determined he was “profoundly autistic.” And then it jumped to show how the boy’s disordered mind really worked at a beach scene.

“I put silhouettes on my box because the disorder doesn’t really discriminate against anyone,” the 17-year-old senior tells a classroom visitor. “It can happen to anyone, which is also why there’s all sorts of different colors on the side. And the hands are almost a symbol of caring. So there’s hands everywhere, everyone’s showing empathy.

Rich confides he didn’t really know what to expect from the design class. “But I was really excited when I heard about this project,” he says.

“Mostly we’ve been doing a lot of different things in this class. And then this is one that will affect more people. The last project that we did was about a hotel chain, so that was more commercial, and we didn’t really have any interaction with the people involved. But for this one, most of us know someone who’s afflicted. I have a cousin whose cousin has it.”

Josh Lo, another senior, has siblings together outside staring into the cosmos on his box. “My idea was, basically, autism is something that’s really vague and it’s kind of mysterious,” he points out. “So we don’t really know too much about it. I kind of had a galaxy theme, and then people holding hands ’cause we’re all in it together. And more people than you know have it or are touched by it. So we should be connected.”

Perhaps the zaniest — and most attention-grabbing — box belonged to Christopher Laun. The story he selected was called “Arianna and the Broken Cheeseburger.”

The seven-year-old autistic girl was at a chili burger place with her family. When her cheeseburger combo came, she started eating everything but the cheeseburger, which the cook had cut in half for her. Knowing that cheeseburgers were her favorite thing on the menu, the parents couldn’t figure out what was the matter.

Until the waitress remarked, “I brought you a broken cheeseburger.”

Grinning, Christopher observes, “The cool part is later in the story that the chili restaurant held, like, a charity event the next week benefiting autism. So everybody who bought a burger got it. And Adrianna says, ‘Oh, thank you. You fixed my cheeseburger,’ when they bring her a whole cheeseburger.”

Inside his box, in fact, is a little non-edible chili, along with a bright purple-and-orange plastic fork and red-and-green knife. Then there’s the tortoise on the outside, Photo-shopped to resemble an utterly mind-blowing walking cheeseburger, with tomato and lettuce, cheese and the juicy burger stacked neatly between its body and shell.  

When Christopher stops laughing, he explains that he learned at least one crucial lesson about autism, even after volunteering all January at a special ed school for Loyola’s annual senior service project. At the Pasadena school, he actually worked with some very socially impaired autistic children who could only be communicated with through hand signals and a special picture app on iPads.

“So I knew a bit,” notes Christopher. “But what I learned afterwards in class is there’s a whole different range of severity of autism. They’re not all like that.”

‘Human Centric Design’

With the empathy box project, Cristina Faulkner says she can see the “creative confidence” students like Christopher, Josh, Rich and Stephen have developed along with their designed jazzy boxes. It’s got them thinking of themselves as innovators.

“So the idea is to design for social impact,” she points out. “And that’s what’s so beautiful about it. Because you change the lens, and everything can be better for people. So the whole name of this is called ‘Human Centric Design.’ What if we look at design in terms of not just a cool product or something that sells, but something that really makes a difference to somebody?”