Building Blocks of a Creative Mind

Researchers use legos to help autistic children cope with everyday life

(RxWiki News) In order to help children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) learn creative skills, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center had autistic children build lego structures.

Many children with ASD have trouble responding to new situations, often becoming frustrated or tense when taken out of their routines or comfort zones. For this reason, researchers believed that through building lego structures in new and unique ways, the children suffering from ASD would gain a creative skill set that better equipped them for unexpected social encounters. 

For this study, researchers used Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the science of targeting and controlling a specific behavior in order to systematically change that behavior. The investigative team found that, at first, the children in the study wanted to build the same 24-block lego structure over and over again. Eventually, all six participants began to open up to other possibilities, such as combining different colors or constructing the legos into a different shape. According to Deborah A. Napolitano Ph.D., BCBA-D., the study's principal investigator, such a progression is vital to learning the ability to respond to new situations in everyday life.

The study involved six participants between the ages 6 and 10. By the end, all made significant progress away from restricted or sameness behavior. Their progress was tracked through a series of phases.

In the first phase, instructors met with the children in one-on-one sessions over the course of several months. The children were encouraged to build a new lego structure at the beginning of each session. If a child seemed confused about the particular task, the instructor would demonstrate how to build something different. If a child succeeded in building something new, s/he would be rewarded.

In the second phase of the study, the children were asked to build new structures out of wooden blocks instead of legos in order that the researchers could observe whether the children could apply their newly acquired skills to a different environment. Instructors then returned the legos to the children while withholding help and prizes. They wanted to see if the children would continue to be creative.

In the last stage, the children received rewards once again for successfully varying their lego structures. In a follow-up stage of the study, researchers found that the children maintained their ability to create new structures. 

In conclusion, Napolitano says, "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. 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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Review Date: 
November 30, 2010