Autistic kids build skills with Legos

U. ROCHESTER (US) — Playing with Legos not only teaches children with autism to think creatively, it also helps them deal with unfamiliar situations.

“In every day life we need to be able to respond to new situations,” says Deborah Napolitano, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester. “If a child has only a rote set of skills, it’s hard to be successful.”

Many children with autism spectrum disorder can become frustrated and uncomfortable when asked to break out of repetitive activities and create something new.

Using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the science of figuring out how to target and systematically change a specific behavior, researchers succeeded in teaching children to play with Legos in a more creative way.

The study’s findings have been published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis.

The participants, six children between the ages of 6 and 10, succeeded in making changes to structures they worked on by study’s end.

Five of the six had moderate problems with restricted or sameness behavior, according to a behavior scale assessment that each participants’ parent or teacher completed. One-on-one sessions with building blocks took place at the participants’ schools in rooms with minimal distractions.

“We really can teach kids just about anything as long as it’s systematic,” Napolitano says.

Children received positive verbal reinforcement as they built with Legos to get baseline data and decide whether the child seemed inclined to change the color patterns or structures. After acquiring the data, researchers began with the first intervention phase.

The first phase of the study included a set of sessions that took place over several months. An instructor asked a child to build something new at the beginning of each session. If a child seemed confused about what he or she was being asked to do, the instructor modeled how to build something different and then prompted the child to build something different. If a child understood and succeeded in building something new, he or she was rewarded with a small prize, such as playing with a favored toy.

In the next phase, the instructor asked the children to build something new with wooden blocks, rather than the plastic Lego blocks they had grown accustomed to, to see whether they could apply the new skills to a slightly different situation from the one they were accustomed to.

Then the instructor gave the children Legos again, without any prompting. Words of encouragement were offered but not a prize to see whether the children would still experiment.  In the last phase, the children were once again rewarded for varying their structures.

A few months later, researchers followed up with the children and found that they were all still able to create new structures in varying colors or shapes.

“The study’s findings could pave the way for new studies testing interventions that attempt to improve a wide variety of social skills and behaviors among people with ASD,” says Napolitano.

“With positive reinforcement and teaching sessions, such tasks as engaging in novel conversations, posing new questions, and creating new ways to play could be within reach for children with ASD.”

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