Lego may be a good building block to communicate with autistic children
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Lego may be a good building block to communicate with autistic children

For six-year-old Dylan Ryan's mother, his diagnosis with autism just before his second birthday was an emotional time.

"It's really sad to think about that," Clare Ryan said, a few tears sneaking out of her eyes.

Aspire Early Intervention project manager Laurie Fraser with Dylan Ryan who has autism.

Aspire Early Intervention project manager Laurie Fraser with Dylan Ryan who has autism.

Photo: Melissa Adams

Now, four years on, after extensive play-based language therapy, the small steps such as him asking to play with the other kids are a big deal.

"He's a completely different kid. Initially Dylan had very little expressive language he basically just said 'no'. He's come a long way, his language is still slightly delayed but it is miles beyond what it was."

Aspire Early Intervention project manager Laurie Fraser with Dylan Ryan who has autism.

Aspire Early Intervention project manager Laurie Fraser with Dylan Ryan who has autism.

Photo: Melissa Adams
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Dylan's therapist, Laurie Fraser, says she would endorse Tasmanian speech pathologist Linda Williams' new push to introduce Lego therapy into Australia.

Ms Williams will present research from the United States and Britain at a conference this weekend in Canberra, finding that incorporating toys such as Lego into therapy can make autistic spectrum children more engaged with their peers.

Ms Williams will also talk about her own experiences of using Lego in therapy.

"I had a child come in who I was doing language work with and he was hard to engage with, and after about two or three months, I thought this is wasting his and my time, and I decided I needed to think outside the square," she said.

Tasmanian speech pathologist Linda Williams will speak at this weekend's Speech pathology Australia Conference.

Tasmanian speech pathologist Linda Williams will speak at this weekend's Speech pathology Australia Conference.

Photo: Supplied

She then brought in her son's Lego set and suddenly she had unexpected outcomes, and her engagement with the child increased.

Ms Williams then decided to look into it further and found research into Lego therapy for children on the autism spectrum coming out of the US by pediatric neuropsychologist Daniel LeGoff.

"The big thing that has come out of Lego-based therapy is that it is inherently motivating and because it is so socially acceptable for children of a certain age, you are able to transfer those skills into the other settings much easier," she said.

She said the research found real outcomes for autism spectrum disorder children.

"The underlying trend is that for children who are on the spectrum, after they have gone through this program they are more engaged with their peers and that then transfers to other settings," she said.

"And certain aspects of social skills like sharing, they found those skills to have increased."

​After trialling Lego in therapy sessions in her home state of Tasmania, Ms Williams says she is now looking at more formal trials of the program.

"As far as I know it has not been used widely here, so I have been talking to psychologists in the UK about the prospect of bringing it out here," she said.

Autism Asperger ACT chief executive officer Peter Brady was excited by the proposal and said he was not surprised toys like Lego were increasingly seen as useful in autism spectrum therapy.

"With this focus on Lego, experience has shown that for some kids with autism spectrum disorder it's a very good tool particularly when used in a group situation," he said.

Laurie Fraser, the autistic therapy program manager at Aspire Early Intervention, stressed that while introducing Lego therapy would mean more choice, parents should go with what suits their child.

"Working with children with autism is a very individualised thing, every time I see a child I think about exactly what will motivate them," she said.

The issue has come into the spotlight in Canberra in the wake of a primary school erecting a cage to contain an autistic student and special education expert Tony Shaddock has been appointed to chair an ACT government's review.

The Speech Pathology Australia conference will take place in Canberra from May 17-20.

Primrose covers breaking political news from The Australian Financial Review's Canberra newsroom.