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Using Lego Therapy to Teach Siblings to Get Along in Families Affected by Autism

November 5, 2020

I grew up having nine older siblings and adore them all to this day. But from the time Isaac gave me my first swirly, Maureen tickled me to tears, and Laura manipulated me into believing frogs aren’t animals, I learned that peaceful sibling relations require work and the ability to memory-hole trauma.

Using Lego Therapy to Teach Siblings to Get Along in Families Affected by Autism

Fortunately, I’m now quite close to my sibs, which is why I desire the same closeness for my own four (soon five) children.

My 12-year-old Joseph, the oldest, has autism, which adds another layer of complexity to the already formidable challenge of getting my kiddos to coexist peacefully.

If the shrieking, name-calling, hissing, and other bizarre forms of psychological warfare haven’t already created permanent discord, it certainly doesn’t help when big brother seems incapable of identifying his offenses or building stronger bonds with the other younglings.

Knowing Joseph’s weak points with an intimacy only reserved to siblings, the younger ones needle him more fiercely than any treatment he receives from his peers at church or school.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to my other children, William, Elizabeth, and Madeline. They have seen other examples of big brothers or sisters who are fearless leaders and heroes to their younger siblings. They know their brother is different but have a hard time understanding why he can’t fill that role.

I don’t begrudge them feeling like there’s something missing in their relationship with Joseph, but I also know there are ways they can come to love and value him for who he is. Among those ways, LEGO® therapy may provide a piece to the puzzle.

LEGO® therapy was not created with the home in mind. Rather, Professor Dan LeGoff, its architect, used it in an educational setting to improve the communication and social skills of children with autism. In LEGO® therapy, a small number of these children, usually three, convene to build a playset.

Each child has a role: (1) an engineer who uses the instructions to direct construction, (2) a supplier who finds the correct bricks, and (3) a builder who assembles the model. Throughout the process, an adult facilitator ensures everything runs smoothly, which contributes to the participants’ success.

I don’t know Professor LeGoff personally, but he must be a genius. I mean, LEGO® is inarguably the best toy ever invented. It requires imagination, patience, ingenuity, and I’m confident LEGO® would beat any other toy in a fight. Seeing as how it’s so versatile, it’s not surprising that LEGO® play can include a powerful social element.

Naturally, I’m biased towards LEGO®, having built my fair share of creations as a child. I remember constantly organizing and reorganizing my bricks, crafting all sorts of adventures. As a late teenager, when I received the opportunity to live in Denmark for two years, I knew only two things about my destination: (1) it was the headquarters for the first LEGOLAND®, and (2) it was the capital of Sweden. I made pilgrimage to LEGOLAND® (twice!), and now as a father, it delights me to see my children commence on their own creative journeys.

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Seeing the appeal of LEGO® therapy and also needing a way to bring harmony to my occasionally discordant little ones, I’ve been spending the past several months teaching my kids to play together constructively (pun shamelessly intended—I’m a dad!) by adapting LeGoff’s approach to my home. Allow me now to share some of my insights.

boy playing robot toy

You don’t need to have exactly three children. Maybe you have just two, or maybe you plan to raise a basketball team like me. (Please excuse me for not including only-children; I’m assuming they pose no sibling rivalry challenges.) Whatever the number of children, don’t feel limited to the roles designated in the original therapeutic approach.

If you have fewer children than three, one child may be fine with two roles. If you have more, you might consider having children take turns within roles.

It might help to explain to your other children exactly what you’re doing. I found being transparent with my younger children helped them to come to the activity with the proper objectives: becoming closer to Joseph and celebrating his triumphs.

After my introduction, I noticed that my 10-year-old, William, became more invested in Joseph’s success rather than considering him a rival. He also started paying more attention to the tremendous effort Joseph put into building, which helped William to have more appreciation for his brother’s growth.

One marvelous benefit of LEGO® therapy is improvement of fine motor skills. It was while observing Joseph’s struggle to connect bricks that I realized how valuable building these sets was for him. He would strain and exert himself to assemble the pieces correctly, but encouragement from me and his siblings prevented him from becoming overly frustrated.

Over a brief time period, I’ve noticed an increase in his confidence with tasks that require this high level of physical control. Even my four-year-old daughter, who is diagnosed with autism but is quite dexterous, has come a long way in her own development.

LEGO® therapy also improves children’s visual scanning abilities. There’s nothing quite like digging through a pile of LEGO® bricks, looking for just the right one. LEGO® construction requires practice of this ability over and over and over, and it’s quite addictive. Just as with the improvement of Joseph’s fine motor skills, his ability to find just the right piece has improved. And it’s an activity that rarely bores his younger siblings.

However, if your children do get bored, don’t force them to have fun. At one point, when I noticed Elizabeth was slowing down and wanting to do something else, I considered pressuring her to continue participation. But it’s a cold, cold world that makes children dread LEGO®.

Seeing as how my purpose was to use the activity to bring my kids closer together, I wanted to ensure my daughter never came to resent it and, therefore, excused her. Sure enough, she has come back to build with her brother many times.

You should select LEGO® sets that suit the tastes of your children. The chance of boredom decreases even more when they’re exploring a world they already hold dear. In our home, it’s all about MarvelTM, Star WarsTM, DisneyTM, and MinecraftTM.

Older kids may be more enthusiastic about the Stranger Things or Friends sets. I’m downright covetous of my Ferrari and Lamborghini sets. My wife Christina is waiting, likely in vain, for LEGO® to release a Pride and Prejudice line.

With time, you may not need to be the facilitator. In fact, William watched carefully how I intervened as little as possible and how I asked questions I already knew the answers to in order to get Joseph to think more deeply about his building decisions.

William then mirrored my behavior (with a little of my help) and replaced me a few times as facilitator, which tended to cultivate more understanding between these two brothers. Your children may not be mature enough to take on the role of facilitator, but they also might surprise you.

LEGO® therapy at home is not a panacea that’s going to resolve all my children’s conflicts. However, it has become a hobby they can explore together that, with proper guidance, allows them to rally behind their brother’s growth and development. It’s a language they can all understand as they build new worlds and meaningful sibling relationships.

This article was featured in Issue 106 –Maintaining a Healthy Balance With ASD

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