Modelling good social skills in `Lego therapy'
The Lego Movie was a global box office hit when it was released earlier this year, cementing the popularity of the iconic children's construction toy.
But Lego's millions of fans may not be aware that these plastic blocks are now being used to help schoolchildren with autism improve their social skills and ability to work together.
The approach requires children to create a model as a team, taking turns to play the roles of builder, engineer and supplier.
It gives young people with autism and other developmental disorders a chance to carry out a structured task with a predictable outcome, while simultaneously facing challenges such as listening, negotiating and being flexible.
Staff at New Struan School in Alloa near Falkirk, which has been trialling the approach, admitted there were difficulties at first. But two pupils, one aged 11 and the other 15, have benefited from weekly sessions and have completed models inspired by the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings films.
The approach, known as "Lego therapy", has been studied by a range of researchers, including academics at the University of Cambridge, who found evidence that it could help develop the social skills of children with autism aged between 6 and 11.
It has also been used by therapists in London working with autistic pupils in both special and mainstream schools.
Chantelle Dobson, one of two speech and language therapists leading the sessions at New Struan, said: "Initially they found it difficult to take turns and they would start the build without listening to each other, so very often they would get it wrong.
"This was actually useful because it helped them to reflect on their communication and consider the needs of the person on the receiving end [of their instructions]."
The sessions at New Struan initially involved three pupils, but one has since left the school. However, therapists or teachers played the third role if necessary, Ms Dobson said.
Almost six months after the weekly therapy sessions started, the pupils' behaviour had improved "noticeably", she added.
The younger boy used to leave the room when he found it hard to give instructions but has now learned to express himself and no longer feels the need to walk away. "It probably helped my communication skills," he said. "I think I'm a bit more focused."
The school, which is run by the charity Scottish Autism, now plans to train its teaching staff to deliver sessions.
Jasmine Miller, principal at New Struan and a member of Scottish Autism's management team, said she had already been approached by one teacher who planned to try the technique with pupils at a mainstream Borders school.
"Lego therapy is a very motivating way to help our young people to develop their social skills.and is something which we really want to expand on in the school," Ms Miller said. "We also see it as a new way to help develop links with other schools."
Other innovative approaches to autism education:
Playing with humanoid robots such as Nao (pictured above) and Kaspar can help children improve their communication skills.
Flummox and Friends is a show about a group of inventors who come up with solutions for everyday problems. Available as a free iPad app, it aims to help children navigate the social and emotional world.
Virtual reality rooms allow autistic children to learn new skills and combat their fears in a safe environment.