Zachary Mathis, 9, constructs a Lego fortress to guard a treasure chest full of Lego rubies while playing with one of his favorite obsessions: Legos.
The Autism News
By Cece Nunn | StarNews Online
On a Friday evening a few weeks ago, six children shared the contents of a blue suitcase filled with LEGO blocks, LEGO people and LEGO animals. The children sat around a conference table in an office on 17th Street and created colorful plastic worlds, including an elaborate fortress and a beach filled with LEGO sunbathers.
By the end of the session, several of the builders, including Drew Matt, 8, were giggling as they chased each other around the conference room.
Invented by a Danish carpenter in the 1940s, plastic LEGO toys are helping children who have been diagnosed with autism, like Drew, build social connections. That’s how the Building Blocks LEGO Club of Wilmington was born last year, when a University of North Carolina Wilmington student working with an autistic 8-year-old noticed how much the boy loved playing with LEGOs.
“He is obsessed with LEGOs,” said Jennifer Mathis, mother of Zachary Mathis. Zachary, whose bedroom is decorated in classic red and blue LEGO colors, is celebrating his 9th birthday today with a LEGO-themed party.
Brian Hartigan, a member of the Psi Chi psychology honor society at UNCW, was the student who worked with Zachary as his personal developmental assistant through Easter Seals United Cerebral Palsy. Because Hartigan had to leave Wilmington this year, the club is now being coordinated by Daryn Blanc-Goldhammer, a first-year graduate student studying psychology at UNCW, and other volunteers.
The club is open to all children ages 5 and up, although younger siblings are allowed to come, and the group meets twice a month at the office of A Caring Heart Case Management Inc., 2541 S. 17th St. Meeting dates are listed on the club’s website at https://sites.google.com/site/bblegoclub/. Parents are required to stay at the meetings, and the next session is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sept. 24.
“When all these kids get together, you don’t know who has what or who is labeled anything because they all sort of act the same in that situation,” Blanc-Goldhammer said.
Playing with LEGOs is an activity many children with autism, a general term used to describe a complex group of developmental brain disorders, enjoy because they like being able to use their hands and their strong visual memories, said Janette Wellman, a psychologist and clinical director at the Wilmington TEACCH Center. TEACCH stands for Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-Handicapped Children.
With LEGOS, “there’s no real competition. There’s no scoring like in a game that you might be playing,” Wellman said. “You’re setting up an environment that has the potential for fostering friendships.”
As the number of children diagnosed with autism and autism-related disorders increases, parents and doctors are searching for ways to halt or reverse the disease’s progression. LEGO therapy has been used at the Center for Neurological and Neurodevelopmental Health in New Jersey to help children with autism and other developmental disorders learn how to interact with one another and peers who are considered to be developing normally.
“One study comparing children who received LEGO therapy to similar children who received non-LEGO social interaction therapy over three years found the LEGO group improved significantly more on scales rating social skills than the control group,” according to a 2009 article on the website of Neurology Now, an American Academy of Neurology publication.
The article described early intervention efforts in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders. Jennifer Mathis said early intervention and LEGOs have had beneficial effects on Zachary, who talked openly recently about the fortress he was building to protect LEGO jewels on the LEGO table in his room.
“I like the building, the creativity,” Zachary said, while playing with a LEGO person with a shark’s head. The shark/man was identified later as Viktor Krum, a LEGO Minifigure based on a Harry Potter character. All Zachary wants for his birthday is the LEGO version of Hogwarts Castle, the fictional school where boy wizard Harry Potter’s greatest adventures take place.
“It’s the only thing on my list,” said Zachary, who as a LEGO BrickMaster is signed up to receive LEGO BrickMaster Magazine and six LEGO models in the mail.
The variety of LEGO toys, if not their tendency to get stuck in vacuum cleaners, appeals to Zachary’s mother. When Zachary had to do a school project related to civil rights activist Rosa Parks, he found a Rosa Parks LEGO Minifigure to help.
“Just imagine whatever you want and LEGO has done it,” Mathis said. “I just wish the pieces weren’t so little.”
The Building Blocks LEGO Club of Wilmington helped Zachary adjust when he switched schools, from Eaton Elementary School to Cape Fear Center for Inquiry. Several of his classmates from CFCI attended the club meetings.
The choice to move to a different school was based on giving Zachary a chance to socialize with children who don’t have autism, Jennifer Mathis said.
“He ended up having friends that he had made on his own,” she said.