Lego learning

Lego has been long-cherished by children all over the world, but could these colourful blocks also help children with autism build their social skills? Priya Kulasagaran learns more about Lego therapy

Observing two young boys in his waiting room, Dr Daniel LeGoff noticed something curious in their interactions with each other. Dr LeGoff, a clinical neuropsychologist, at the time was offering therapy services to children and teenagers who needed help with their social and communication skills. Many of the youth he was seeing had been diagnosed with disorders such as autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and similar conditions which affected their ability to pick up social cues that most of us take for granted.

Based in Hawaii, the United States, Dr LeGoff had been providing individualised therapy for his young patients, while advocating for broader social development programmes to be implemented in schools and the community. On this particular day, he noticed that his two young patients were sharing their Lego creations with each other while waiting for their appointments.

“They were not social children, and typically did not interact or communicate with peers, but they recognised their common interest and were soon comparing ideas and sharing about their creations and sets. One boy said to me: ‘You know, Dr Dan, that kid is from my planet’.”

Dr LeGoff asked if the parents would allow him to see the two boys together. Little did he know, this initial session would set the scene for his novel approach to therapy – one that was based on using Lego blocks.

Block by block

Dr LeGoff was in Malaysia earlier this year to share his experiences in using Lego as a form of therapy. With the help of Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre, Dr LeGoff and his team have spent the last 20 years developing and studying Lego Therapy, and its uses in helping young people build social skills.

The premise of Dr LeGoff’s “Lego Club” is simple: children within a group are divided into several roles. The Parts Supplier organises the pieces to hand over to the Builder, who assembles the Lego structure. All this is supervised by the Engineer, who directs the others on the parts required. The idea is to show children that they need to collaborate to build a Lego set.

As the two young boys from the waiting room worked on their Lego creations, Dr LeGoff found that other children wanted in on the process too.

“Within a few weeks, I had dozens of children, mostly boys, but about 10-15% girls, working in small groups, assembling Lego sets, each taking a turn at being an Engineer, Builder and Parts Supplier. The roles were rotated at approximately a third of the way through each set, so that each child had the opportunity to participate in each role,” he explained.

Aside from feeling a sense of camaraderie and enjoying themselves, the children seemed to be better communicating with  each other. “Within an hour, they would have at least 200 connections or talking points. If you leave them alone they will line things up or stack heads which is not helpful. You want them to be interactive. They will realise that if they collaborate it gets done more efficiently and faster. They start valuing having collaborators,” said Dr LeGoff.

As time passed, more freestyle building was incorporated in the process to allow the participants more room for creativity. This led to rather elaborate and imaginative constructions, but Dr LeGoff was more encouraged by the way the children were working through problems as a collective.

He explained that while the adults in the room facilitated an environment to allow members to pitch their ideas and give constructive feedback, the children were given the space to figure out their own answers to challenges. “Sometimes the disagreements about what a group would do on a given day would take up most of the group’s time, but it seemed more important to me that they work out their ideas and relationships, rather than just produce Lego constructions,” he added.

Rules of cool

To keep disruptive or destructive behaviour in check, the Lego sessions work on a peer-based point system. Children can nominate each other for points, for helpful behaviour, which can be exchanged for small Lego sets. Each group also had to establish its own set of rules, including the ‘Rules of Cool’ which encouraged pro-social behaviour.

While he believes that all children with Autism Spectrum Disorder can benefit from Lego therapy, he admits that their progress depends on the severity of their social difficulties. For his own Lego clubs, the only children he does not take in are those who “are the bullies, those who are abusive and aggressive”. If a child continues being aggressive despite parental involvement, they will be required to leave the club.

As of today, there are Lego Club groups and Lego-based therapy research underway in 36 countries with the most recent additions are Paraguay, Chile and India.

As part of his trip to Malaysia, Dr LeGoff also trained six therapists from BLOKKELabs, a local Lego education provider, and the National Autism Society of Malaysia (Nasom). These therapists were part of the BLOKKETherapy programme, Southeast Asia’s first Lego-based autism therapy programme. Currently in its pilot phase, the programme started in July for 12 selected children with autism sponsored by Bank Rakyat.

Sheahnee Iman Lee, the BLOKKETherapy programme’s Project Leader, explained the centre started looking into Lego therapy after being approached by parents of autistic children. “We took in two children as a start, and we noticed that they really enjoyed playing with the Lego sets. So we wanted to learn more, to encourage them to do more. After discovering Lego Therapy, we knew we had to bring it here to help more children,” she said.

Following this six-month pilot, the programme is set to be open to the public early next year. While BLOKKELabs will have paid classes for children at full fees, Nasom will conduct classes at subsidised fees. The profits from BLOKKELabs classes will also subsidise children who cannot afford to enrol with the full fee; these children will be to attend the Lego-based therapy at 17 Nasom centres for free or at a very low rate.

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