Photo: Angela Wylie
Rob Deakin started Brick Clubs for children and has found that construction play can help children on the autism spectrum as well as children who don’t fit into the usual sporting clubs.
On a lazy Saturday afternoon in inner Melbourne, there’s a steady trickle of children wandering through the shops, looking wide-eyed and a little dazed, like they can’t quite believe their luck. Their destination is a shopfront tucked away on the wrong side of the railway line, its windows full of giant Lego models, the kind that take days, not hours, to complete. Rob Deakin, a Lego fan ”from pre-natal”, was still setting up on his first day at the Fairfield shop, Inside the Brick, when hopeful kids and parents starting dropping in. Inside the Brick is the end point in a journey Deakin started about four years ago, when he left the lucrative world of corporate cyber security to start a business running Lego workshops and clubs, fuelled by the goal of ”making a community for all these kids who didn’t have one”. It’s a journey that has taken Deakin from his own simple enthusiasm for making things, into the complex world of autism, children’s play and the latest research both here and overseas. Deakin, a self-described ”king of the nerds” – ”red hair, glasses and braces, at a Queensland boarding school”- had noticed that many of the kids and adults who came along to Lego events were socially awkward. When he started running Lego groups there were always a few parents who would gratefully explain how much the group meant to their child who had few friends or struggled with social difficulties. ”We’d get these mums with a tear in their eye or biting their bottom lip. At first I thought I’d done something wrong [but] their kids had no friends or play dates, this was a first.” Deakin had little clue about autism and autism disorders such as Asperger syndrome when he began renting space at the Abbotsford Convent in 2011 to start running Lego clubs. ”I barely knew the difference between autism and Down syndrome back then. We did all these stupid things like changing around the tables from one week to the next and running building competitions; great for the kid who wins but we’d have all these other kids having meltdowns,” he says. The terms autism spectrum and Asperger’s started coming up more often among the parents Deakin was seeing at his workshops and in some of the studies he began to track down online, which looked at the benefits of Lego for kids on the autism spectrum.
Fast-forward a couple of years and Deakin won a prestigious Churchill Fellowship to travel overseas and pursue his interest in Lego, and construction play generally, and find out more about children on the autism spectrum. He visited the National Autistic Society in London, the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge and, of course, his personal mecca, Lego HQ in Denmark. ”The trip gave me confidence that I was on the right path with the Lego clubs idea. Why do we have football clubs, swimming clubs and other sports clubs in every community, but for construction play, this fundamental stage in human development, we don’t have clubs,” he says. What Deakin observed with the groups was that sharing a common interest in Lego instantly gave the kids a social community, and for many it was the first social group they belonged to. ”A lot of these kids are not fitting into Auskick or Scouts. Team sports can be tough for them. These are kids who’ve never asked another kid their name, but they can talk for hours about Star Wars or Harry Potter.” Deakin, who would like to see a template for Lego clubs similar to the Scouts model, says he no longer believes in running special Lego clubs for kids with autism; instead he aims for a ratio of socially typical kids to kids with social difficulties. Inside the Brick has been set up as a social enterprise, which means that 50 per cent of the profits will go towards helping others set up Lego clubs along similar lines. Deakin is anxious, for example, that the clubs don’t become used as an excuse to sell kids more Lego. Lego is certainly not the first toy to have a special appeal for kids on the autism spectrum, with many attracted to Thomas the Tank Engine and collectables such as Pokemon and My Little Pony.
Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, director of the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre at La Trobe University, says the appeal of Lego for kids with autism probably centres on their strength in spatial skills – they’re often great at puzzles and block design – and their particular style of information processing. Dissanayake says while researchers had once thought that children with autism were unable to engage in pretend play or games based on imagination, it was more accurate to say that they engaged in particular types of pretend play, such as Lego. Similarly, there is a common myth that children on the autism spectrum don’t want to have friends. ”Of course they want to have friends, but it tends to be around their common interests,” she says. Communication for kids on the autism spectrum tends to be pragmatic, or used for a definite purpose, Dissanayake says, so an activity around a shared interest, such as Lego, can be very successful in motivating these children to communicate. ”Anything that brings children with autism into contact with others with a common interest is going to be good. And other kids in the Lego club won’t all have autism so that will help develop the social skills of the child with autism.” Dissanayake says the most recent research has found that about 2 per cent of children at school, or one in 50, have an autism spectrum disorder, many of these not diagnosed until they get to school. Common features of autism disorders include difficulty understanding social rules and non-verbal cues, difficulty communicating, repetitive behaviours and narrow interests. Some children also have delayed motor skills, both fine and gross.
Rita Layfield has become a big fan of Lego over the past year or so, since her son Nick has grown increasingly fascinated with the little plastic blocks. For Nick, 8, who has Asperger syndrome, Lego has helped to give him the social passport that he was lacking, particularly at school. Layfield says Nick started finding it even harder to fit in at school once a lot of his peers started playing footy and four square every lunchtime. ”He’s not a sporty kid, not interested in sport at all … but that’s where Lego has helped him because there’s always talk about Lego with the boys at school,” she says. Although he attends a group aimed at learning the unwritten social rules that don’t come easily to kids on the autism spectrum, Layfield says a common interest in Lego has definitely helped break down some of the barriers to friendships with other children. Lego also gives Nick an alternative to the computer screen, a battleground for so many parents, and Layfield credits it with helping to improve her son’s fine motor skills, which are delayed. These days, when the family goes out with others, Nick always takes some Lego with him and the children generally end up building something together. ”It has definitely opened up a lot of doors. Even with kids where they don’t really get along, they’ll start talking about Lego and they’ll usually end up building something together.” Specialising in Assessment & Treatment of Children & Adolescents