Thanks to the Knoxville News Sentinel for bringing spotlight to our LEGO Club with this article!
LEGO Club allows kids with autism to build relationships while having fun
By: Meghan Davi, Special to the News Sentinel
Posted: 5:30 PM, Apr 22, 2014
Five-year-old Lydia Brown dives into a huge tub of LEGOs spread out on a table at West Park Baptist Church looking for the characters and pieces that she wants to use at her corner of the table. Then she is in the zone, and it is all play.
For her parents, Michael and Margaret Brown, the third Thursday of every month is a day they have circled on their calendars weeks in advance. That day marks the Autism Society of East Tennessee's monthly LEGO Club.
The club launched in Knoxville in October after seeing some prior success with the vintage toy among children with autism. "Autism Society had started one in another county, and it had gone really well so they wanted to start one in Knoxville," LEGO Club Coordinator Shari Cate says.
The club is set up for individuals up to 17 years of age who have autism to come, play, build and socialize. The group averages about 20 attendees every month and hopes to grow.
For families like the Browns, events like the LEGO Club are invaluable. "This is just such a great thing for Lydia. I know that she can come here without me having to worry that she is acting up or that anyone will think she is weird," Margaret says.
Teresa Vaughn, Autism Society board member who attends the monthly meetings, says that the wonderful thing about LEGOs is that, "There is freedom to create, but also instruction if you want it. It allows the kids to build something while also using their imagination."
But the social benefits for the children that attend are also an important factor. "We thought what can we bring in that would be consistent so that they can build relationships and promote social interactions. With LEGOs, they can make up stories and just talk with their friends."
Lydia has been a regular attendee at the club since her parents found out about it in November at a fundraising event for the Autism Society.
Lydia was officially diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, in May, but Margaret says that they knew much earlier. "We caught some of her difficulties really early on. We knew something wasn't right. The repetition and speech problems were early signs for us."
Lydia didn't talk until she was 3 and up until then, her dad, Michael, says that the only way she could communicate was by screaming. "The language barrier was really hard for us."
But between school and speech therapy, Lydia "just blossomed," Michael says, joking that now they can't get her to stop talking.
It has been a long process for their family since receiving Lydia's diagnosis, but an eye-opening one.
"Once we started going to stuff and learning more about how her world works, I was just blown away," says Michael.
Lydia's biggest obstacle right now is social interaction. She often doesn't understand sarcasm and takes everything very literally.
"She looks forward to (LEGO Club) every month, and when we tell her that she is going to LEGO Club, she just jumps up and down with excitement. It is something that she can easily interact with other kids while she is playing."
The club sets up LEGOs in a handful of rooms, all right next to each other, for the different age groups. "Kids can go to the other rooms to interact with each other," Cate says. "We really want to promote sharing."
Lydia bounces around between all the different rooms, collecting LEGO pieces from the various bins as she takes the occasional break for a snack and to check in with Mom and Dad.
Her parents both say that they want to continue to put Lydia in social situations that will help her learn to overcome some of the social barriers that she experiences with Asperger's. "We want her to be prepared for situations so that she can figure out how to navigate them as she gets older — so she can lead the most normal life possible."
Michael and Margaret say that they are learning new things all the time and that amidst the difficulties there are things to celebrate as well.
"She is starting to be able to express and recognize emotions in other people. That has been huge for us. She can recognize when someone is sad or mad, she doesn't understand it but the fact that she knows and can see it has been a huge milestone for us."
Along with the LEGO Club, the Autism Society of East Tennessee hosts a social event every month for children with autism and their parents as well as workshops and conferences throughout the year for people to learn more about autism.
The LEGO Club is always looking for volunteers to come and help once a month. Vaughn says that they like to have a few people in each room to assist.
"We have a lot of fun," Cate says of the club and hopes that other families will come participate.
Michael says that while Lydia loves LEGOs, when he found out he was going to get to take her to the club every month he said, "Are you serious? I get to go play LEGOs, too? Sign me up!"
For more information about the LEGO Club and the Autism Society of East Tennessee, visit www.asaetc.org.