Caleb: I don’t want to build this together. I could thoroughly complete this project in 5 minutes by myself.

Leader: Caleb sounds frustrated. When you first started group, you wanted to work alone too, didn’t you Brett? What changed for you?

Brett: Yah, well that’s not the point of this group. This is about everyone building together.

Max: I can’t find the yellow light. (Max’s voice grows louder). I can’t find the yellow light. (Max shuffles the Legos randomly as he becomes more frustrated).

Leader: Hey guys, let’s freeze for a second. What do you see is happening with Max right now?

Brett: His voice is getting really loud. (Brett covers his ears).

Leader: Any idea what he might be feeling?

Caleb: He’s mad. Or maybe frustrated.

Leader: Any ideas on how to help him?

Brett: Max, do you want us to help you look for the piece?

Caleb: I found it! (Caleb hands Max the yellow light).

Max: Thanks.

Leader: Look how you guys worked together to move forward on this project. What a team!

Does that sound like kids just playing with LEGO® bricks? Look closely. There is a world of change at work displayed in that snippet of group dialogue. Kids on the spectrum like Max (13), Caleb (12), and Bret (14) ARE able to become more socially motivated and can develop increasing social competence over time.

Here is what I see in this exchange:

Early on in this LEGO® Group, Brett would have been too focused on the project itself to respond to the Leader’s prompt asking for help.

As the “old timer” in this group, Brett was eager to demonstrate what he had learned about the group’s purpose with new member, Caleb.

Caleb was able to connect Max’s behavior with a feeling.

Brett also offered help to his buddy, Max, find the missing piece.

Caleb made a progressive step when he pitched in to find the missing yellow light piece even after he had just bluntly blurted out how much faster the project would have been finished if the group just allowed Caleb to do it himself.

Max was able to accept help and verbalize thanks to his friends, and at the same time, he self-regulated.

That short refrain from this LEGO® Social Development Group demonstrated a whole lot of important social steps forward for these boys.

In my experience over the last 20 years working with kids on and off the spectrum, I have learned that kids with ASD require a unique therapeutic approach to match and capitalize on their idiosyncratic interactional styles. Kids and teens with ASD aren’t motivated to adapt their behavior based on social pressures and modeling like other kids are. For the most part, they lack the natural social motivation to learn social skills and change behaviors. For this reason, we ask our kids and teens with ASD to connect on their own playing fields; more on their own terms. By engaging in a “sport” that is highly motivating for them – building LEGO® projects – they develop mutually interdependent relationships, and in the process, build a cohesive group identity with a common purpose. Daniel LeGoff writes about this phenomenon in his book LEGO®-Based Therapy: How to build social competence through LEGO®-based Clubs for children with autism and related conditions (2014).

This group is not for everyone. In order to foster an environment that generates these kinds of interaction, the members need to be very carefully screened for compatibility of age, developmental level, diagnosis and personality to make sure the kids “fit together”. When children in a group are on disparate social and emotional developmental levels, the group may never become cohesive and that can discourage growth amongst the members.

Remember Caleb from the opening dialogue? When his Mom brought him to In Step, she was intending for him to participate in the Stepping Stones group she researched on our website. She was concerned that he was not making friends with age appropriate peers. While he got along really well with significantly younger children in the neighborhood, doing whatever Caleb told them to do, he was not able to initiate social interaction with other 6th graders at his middle school. Through the initial evaluation process she realized that her desire for more social interaction for Caleb was much greater than his own. She recognized Caleb’s lack of motivation or insight into improving his social functioning. As for Caleb, himself, the entire process was uninteresting to him until the therapist talked about Minecraft Legos. That was something he knew and enjoyed. His desire to participate increased even though his initial motivation had little to do with wanting to expand his friends network or to practice social problem-solving skills.

Let’s talk about Max for a moment. He also struggled with social communication issues with peers, but unlike Caleb, was motivated to make friends and was continually confused and frustrated by the process of doing so. Like so many teens on the spectrum, Max was unable to intuit how others think and feel. As a result, he frequently misinterpreted the actions of others and then overreacted in response. His classmates find his behavior disconcerting and disruptive, and they keep their distance from him because they are not sure when Max might blow up out of the blue.

Lastly, there is our seasoned group member, Brett, who had been in this Lego group for several months. Initially, like Caleb, he did not understand why there needed to be other group members helping him build when he was perfectly capable of building the projects himself. Over time, Brett realized by cooperating fully with the group’s social skill building strategies, he and the other boys got to complete more Lego sets. A key strategy that works in these groups is the assignment of interactive jobs and then role swapping which allows group members to play all the roles of Builder, Engineer, and Piece Locator in order to achieve more finished products. In other words, working together cooperatively not only earns the boys a joint Lego achievement status but also brings them together in working towards a common goal.

In order to meet the needs of a broader range of social challenges in the children and teens we see at In Step, we are meeting our kids where their natural interests lie in order to sustain their motivation, encourage social reciprocity and team building, and change self-limiting behaviors.

Max: Hey, which is worse an Enderman or a Creeper?

Caleb: Enderman all the way!

Brett: Guys, its my turn to be Builder next week. Don’t forget. (Looking at Caleb) You said if I let you be the Builder this week, I’d get to be the Builder next week. Shake on it.

Caleb: You have my word.