With the help of multicolored Legos, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were able to express their creativity — an often challenging skill for those with ASD.
Children with autism spectrum disorder may often feel uncomfortable or discouraged when asked to replace usual repetitive activities by creating something original. However, researchers were successful in teaching all six children (ages 6 to 10) who participated in the study to play with Legos in a more creative manner.
“In everyday life we need to be able to respond to new situations,” said Deborah A. Napolitano, Ph.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics at University of Rochester Medical Center’s Golisano Children’s Hospital and the study’s principal investigator.
“If a child has only a rote set of skills, it’s hard to be successful.”
In the beginning of the study, the children wanted to continue building the same 24-block Lego structure again and again; however, as the study progressed, they began reaching beyond their comfort zones to create original buildings featuring various color patterns or different shapes.
For example, it was a big step to attach a yellow Lego onto a blue one when only red blocks had touched blue blocks before. This situation represents problems that children with ASD might encounter in real life scenarios, such as learning to say hello to an acquaintance or friend who shows up unannounced.
“We really can teach kids just about anything as long as it’s systematic,” said Napolitano.
Five of the six children in the study had moderate problems with restricted or sameness behavior. However, by the end of the study, each of the six study participants managed to make changes to every Lego structure they had built.
As each child began playing with their Legos, the instructor walked around giving a “good job” every once in a while, to assess whether the child seemed likely to change the color pattern or structure of the Legos. After acquiring baseline information regarding the children’s preferences (such as changing Legos’ color patterns versus Legos’ structural patterns) researchers began the first intervention step.
This first phase of the study included a set of sessions that took place over several months. At the start of each session, an instructor asked the child to build something new. If a child seemed unsure of what to do, the instructor built something unique and then asked the child to also build something different. If the child succeeded in creating a new structure, through trying new color patterns or structures, he or she was rewarded with a small prize, such as playing with a favorite toy.
In the next phase, the children were asked to build something novel with wooden blocks — rather than Legos — to see if they would apply their new creativity skills in a mildly different situation. When this was over, they were given Legos again, but this time, they received no guidance and were only told “good job” without the prize. This was done to see if the children would still experiment with creativity.
Finally, during the last phase, the children were once again given a prize for attempting to create a unique Lego structure.
A few months later, researchers checked up on the children and discovered that they were still able to create novel structures by using a variety of colors and 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,” said 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.”
The study’s findings have been published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis.