Play your way through autism

Supportive, play-based learning programs can provide ASD children with an opportunity to socially interact and make connections with other children.
Apr 28, 2021
Building relationships through play.

Play is a language that most kids will understand, including those who aren’t great with regular communication.

Children on the autism spectrum often don’t do language in the same way as others, but tactile design, tasks that require concentration and imagination are often strong points for those with the condition.

Brigitte Maibom, Learning Links CEO says neurodivergent children, such as those on the autism spectrum or others who experience a range of social and emotional difficulties can often be misunderstood due to the different ways they may communicate or interact with others.

Supportive, play-based learning programs can provide these children with an opportunity to socially interact and make connections with other children, build skills, develop friendships and improve emotional wellbeing.

Learning Links has been a local provider of LEGO based therapy programs like Brick-by-Brick since 2018, running over 20 programs for more than 100 children.

“The structured play-based learning approach used in the program has given Learning Links psychologists the opportunity to empower over 100 children experiencing social and emotional difficulties to build vital skills that many of us take for granted. Play-based learning can help children to turn-take, listen, follow instructions, express themselves and interact with peers. These are skills that will help these children build friendships, navigate social situations and better cope in the school environment.

“The Brick-by-Brick program empowers children to come together through a shared interest in LEGO play and allows them to play and build together in a supportive small group setting. Through this structured, tangible activity they are able to build upon skills as well as demonstrate and practice them through play,” she says.

Play Therapy is a widely recognised, evidence-based strategy that encourages children to play out real or metaphorical experiences, empowering them to express, regulate, communicate, practice and master new skills.

By building and playing together, the children collaborate, communicate, negotiate and problem-solve, developing friendships and creating social opportunities along the way. The program is facilitated by psychologists or professionals who have undergone training in playful learning facilitation.

Several small-scale research studies into LEGO based therapy, have shown promising outcomes for autistic children in terms of social interaction, communication, behaviour and emotional wellbeing.

Learning Links conducts pre- and post-testing to understand the outcomes and effectiveness of the techniques used.

“For each program, our psychologists set goals to improve communication, social skills, how to make friends and regulation of emotions. Scores out of 10 are given to each child pre- and post- program for listening to and following instructions, giving instructions to others, seeking clarification and overall joint working. While pre-testing offers scores around 2-5/10, post-testing sees an improvement of 7–9/10 for each skill,” she says.

The Brick-by-Brick program is a child-led, learning-through-play concept involving collaborative play with LEGO bricks, originally developed for children and young people who need social interactions and communication support such as those on the autism spectrum, building upon the methodology of “LEGO therapy" or “LEGO Based Therapy”.

Facilitated by psychologists or trained professionals, children work together to build specific LEGO models or design and build their own freestyle LEGO creations in small teams. To provide additional support with communication and social interaction, children are given clear roles, rules and activities – they are assigned as the Engineer who gives the instructions, the Supplier who finds the relevant bricks, or the Builder who puts the pieces together. These roles are rotated to allow children to experience different responsibilities throughout the activity.

The refreshed Brick-by-Brick program being developed by Play Included in the UK will be strengthened with more emphasis placed on playful learning content and facilitation, to support a wider range of children.

“Learning Links psychologists deliver the structured Brick-by-Brick LEGO based therapy program in small groups over a 12-week period. We see incredible results for children who struggle emotionally and socially.

“Through pre- and post-testing, we have seen significant improvements with children’s ability to take turns, work in a group and interact with one another. This builds vital skills with social communication, behaviour, understanding and talking about feelings, and the ability to solve problems, improving confidence and emotional wellbeing,” Maibom says.

“Through the Play Based Therapy approach used in the small group LEGO® program, we see children with a range of social and emotional difficulties lean to regulate their needs more easily and also understand the needs of their peers. The children start to verbally communicate with one another about their building, seek each other’s approval, become better at giving each other praise and practice their negotiation skills – often without prompting,” says Psychologist, Lucy Tchepak.