Building blocks build communication in autism

VOORHEES, N.J. - December 23, 2008 -

"How does it go on?" a young girl asks excitedly as she puts big LEGO units together. Her teammate, a therapist at the Center for Neurological and Neurodevelopmental Health says, "That looks about right."

It's 6 o'clock on a Wednesday night, and Dr. Dan's LEGO club is in session in Voorhees, New Jersey.

These kids wouldn't miss it.

"Lego Club, it's in stone on the calendar! Every Wednesday night, we must be here," says Beth Caleds, whose son, Liam, has been part of the club for more than a year.

"Dr. Dan" is Dr. Dan LeGoff, a child pscyhologist at the CNNH.

About 15 years ago, he realized traditional therapy didn't seem to work well for kids with a mild form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome.

And that was particularly true of boys.

But those kids did gravitate towards LEGOs.

And he saw kids who usually played alone were seeking company while playing with the building toys.

Dr. LeGoff remembers, "One day, one kid said, "you know, can I work together with this other kid?


So the LEGO club was born.

There are 8 weekly clubs in all, organized by age.

Children often work in pairs, one playing the "engineer," giving instructions.

The other is "the builder."

An adult therapist oversees the process.

While the kids build animals, machines and such, Dr. Dan says they also build communication and social skills -

Dr. Dan leave over, to a working pair, "Did you really hurt his feelings, or were you joking? Boy: that really hurts, dude. That hurt my feelings. Tristan: That's why I said sorry - I was just joking."

10-year-old Tristan Gorman has been in the program for about a year-and-a-half. His mother says she's seen a tremendous change.

"He used to have meltdowns all the time. And he was mean and aggressive a lot of the time dealing with anxiety. And now he's happy and smiling again," says Brenda Gorman.

For Liam, his mother says it's been a slow process, but the club taught him to compromise.

"...To work with other people and I think that has carried over to home and school," she observes.

There are no large-scale studies, but Dr. Dan says his own research shows the program helps kids become less-shy, have deeper interactions with other kids, and have less disruptive behavior.

He says some former club members went on to college.... One even served in Iraq.

"His family wasn't sure he'd ever succeed. They didn't think the military would accept him," says Dr. Dan.

Several other centers, including Bancroft Neurohealth, also in Voorhees, New Jersey, use LEGO play to build social skills. But it hasn't been widely popularized, and one of the largest autism centers in the Philadelphia area was only slightly familiar.

Critics say it only helps a small segment of the children coping with autism.

Jean Ruttenberg, of the Autism Center in Philadelphia, says it won't help children with more complex cases of autism. And she noted that in his studies, Dr. LeGoff won't include children with behavior problems.

"Those make up the majority of children with autism, and the ones we struggle with every day." says Ruttenberg. She also notes that Dr. LeGoff himself set the measures of success used in his studies. She says there should be more impartial measures.

Ruttenberg would like to see more extensive studies before adding it to treatments at her center.

The dozens of LEGO figures made over the years line a cabinet along the wall, and they are used in movies the youngsters write, direct, and film together. Every LEGO club has the opportunity to make the movies, which are presented every year at a "film festival." Dr. LeGoff says last year's festival was held on Academy Award night, complete with popcorn and a red carpet. He says is gives the youngsters an even bigger sense of accomplishment.

Parents say it gives the kids a sense of achievement.... And a bond they may not get at school.

Beth Caleds notes, "This is one place he can always come and be himself and be accepted."

Centers that use LEGOs include Center for Neurological and Neurodevelopmental Health<\a> and Bancroft NeuroHealth<\a>.

Other major autism treatment centers in the Delaware Valley include: , and Children's Hospital Regional Autism Center<\a>.