Parents and teachers of kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) including myself, are always looking for different ways and materials to teach many different skills. We want their learning to be as exciting as it is informative to them. In all of my years of working with pupils with ASD, there hasn’t been an equipment/tool most effective than Lego. First and foremost, there are very, very few kids who do not like playing with, or even looking at Lego. They are brightly coloured blocks which is usually associated with FUN and PLAY; not school/ learning. Its association with fun is the most important thing to remember, especially (but not exclusively) when the children are really young, since the lessons can be disguised as play (remember this when your students aren’t cooperating in structured lessons).
So what lessons can we teach them through Lego?
Through Lego, we can teach kids with ASD different ways of sorting and grouping things. Lego can help reinforce the lessons they have learned in school. They can sort the pieces by colour, sizes and shapes. Of course, we could extend this by giving them say, 5 pieces and asking them which one is the ‘odd one out’.
We can also use the Lego men and women to teach gender. A lot of young individuals with Autism that I have worked with initially struggled with identifying the gender of their peers, and having them inspect the (potentially) non-threatening plastic faces of the Lego characters have helped them greatly with this issue. Identifying a Lego figure’s gender is of course very different to identifying a real person’s, but learning through these plastic figures is a major step that needs to be taken forward.
Learning to count is always easier when you’re counting something you like. Having children count the pieces that they have or counting with them can help reinforce numeracy skills. Asking questions such as ‘how many wheels does that car in your hand have?’ or how many trees do I have in my hands?’ can be a lot easier for them to answer compared to worksheets. Also, They can put Lego pieces together to build the numbers (see picture on the left).
Fine Motor Skills and Coordination
Many children with Autism have developmental delays in motor skills and coordination. Playing with Lego can help improve these skills. Having them manipulate those blocks by putting one on top of the other and taking them apart can help train their finger and hand muscles to great effect. Also, by using both hands while playing, their coordination could improve.
Expressive and Receptive Language
Playing any type of games can help develop children’s language. Expressive and receptive language can be improved by regularly asking questions about the game/ pieces that they have. Also, emplying what Speech and Language Therapists call ‘Sabotage technique’ wherein you withhold something that they want until they say the correct phrase of asking for it (e.g. ‘please may I have the black wheel for my car?’). They can also be explicitly taught to follow instructions while playing.
‘What’s mine is mine’ is often one of the biggest problem parents have with their children. Parents can teach their children how to share by playing Lego with them and modelling different ways of sharing and compromise. Explicitly saying ‘it’s your turn to pick a piece’; ‘it’s OK if you have that piece’; ‘I’ll have this piece instead’ or ‘thank you for giving me this piece’ can help build up the children’s vocabulary, whilst learning what sharing means at the same time.
Imagination and Planning
It may be a hard task to teach a child how to imagine something, but giving them a platform to do so will help stimulate their imagination. Asking them to build a blue tower or a green and white house gives them a chance to both imagine what the house or tower would look like and how they will do it. These abilities vary from one child to the next and tailoring each task to an individual’s skill set is definitely necessary.