Seth Lester places the last block of Lego on a Jurassic Park-themed dinosaur, one of the creations he is preparing to display at the Autism Lego Expo in Mackay, north Queensland.

The annual event, which draws hundreds of children and adults alike, is held just before Christmas.  For 13-year-old Seth, it’s the highlight of his year.

“Some people think people like me can’t do that much,” he said.  “But having these people go to the Lego day and see all these people’s creations and being amazed at what these people can achieve, it’s really good.”

After being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder four years ago at age nine, Seth has been attending a weekly Lego group especially for kids with autism.

A girl constructing Lego.
PHOTO: Constructing Lego helps these children build other skills. (ABC Tropical North: Sophie Meixner)

It’s a chance to spend time with kids who love Lego as much as he does, as well as his mum Melanie Lester, who is here every week.

“I don’t really spend time with my family a lot,” Seth said.

“I’m just locked in my room with my electronics, [but] I just come here every week and do this, so it’s a really fun activity.”

Little details help kids thrive

At the start of a Mackay Autism Lego Group meeting, the room is filled with boxes and boxes of Lego, carefully separated into colours.

A boy holds up a Lego creation of dinosaurs.
PHOTO: Seth Lester prepared for this year’s Autism Lego Expo in Mackay six months in advance. (ABC Tropical North: Sophie Meixner)

There is enough of the Lego, donated by the family of a previous group member, so children do not have to tear their creations down at the end of the session.

Ms Lester said all of these details were designed with the comfort of the group members in mind.

“We found most autistic kids are very habitual,” she said.

“Having [the Lego] broken into colours is easing their senses.”

Ms Lester said her son had undergone a noticeable change since joining the Lego group.

“Social inclusion, he’s actually getting out of the house, meeting new people,” she said.

“He’s a little bit more outgoing, he’s more willing to talk to people — especially where Lego is concerned — but it has actually helped him feel like he fits in somewhere.”

A teenage boy and a woman smiling and holding up Lego.
PHOTO: Melanie Lester says the Lego group had helped her son Seth feel like he fits in. (ABC Tropical North: Sophie Meixner)

Taking skills beyond the Lego group

Constructing Lego has helped Seth with his schoolwork and in classes.

“Fine motor skills is definitely the big one,” Ms Lester said.

“Doing PE was a struggle, he couldn’t catch the balls, even down to holding a pencil was a bit of an issue for him, so this has really helped.”

By attending the group, Ms Lester has met other parents whose children are on the autism spectrum.

“Someone can come in and go, ‘My kid’s doing this’,” she said.

“Nine times out of 10 you’ll find someone who’s been through something similar and you don’t feel so alone.”

A woman sitting at a table talking to a group of young boys.
PHOTO: Lydia Irvine-Collins facilitates a weekly clinical Lego therapy session in Cairns. (Supplied: Autism Queensland)

NDIS-supported Lego therapy

Lego therapy has been used as a clinical tool by therapists since 2003, when American neuropsychologist Daniel LeGoff observed how normally introverted autistic children would interact and socialise with peers while playing with Lego.

Cairns occupational therapist Lydia Irvine-Collins facilitates a weekly Lego group therapy session, which uses evidence-based techniques to engage autistic children through Lego.

Unlike the more informal group in Mackay, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)-supported Lego sessions are clinically structured to encourage children to improve their communication and cooperation skills.

“The goal of the group is that they work together, they learn how to describe the Lego pieces, to explain them to each other,” Ms Irvine-Collins said.

A young boy with a helicopter made with Lego.
PHOTO: Children prepare their creations months in advance to display at Mackay’s annual Lego Day. (ABC Tropical North: Sophie Meixner)

“A lot of our [goals] are around self-regulation, so managing emotions and working in a team, but also a lot about language skills, of ‘How do we explain pieces in a way that others understand?'”

In clinical Lego therapy, each child is assigned a role in the building process, with each role dependent on other participants.

“Generally, you get an architect or an engineer — that is the person that has the instructions, they’re the one describing pieces,” Ms Irvine-Collins said.

“You get your supplier, who has to find the different pieces, and then you get a builder, that’s the one who puts it together.”

She said she had observed significant change in participants over the 10-week course.

A village created out of Lego.
PHOTO: Children develop problem-solving skills, and build their self-esteem and self-confidence. (ABC Tropical North: Sophie Meixner)

“I remember working with two boys once where … they were able to problem-solve and negotiate who was able to do what roles. They were able to decide when to swap roles themselves,” she said.

“That was a massive win for them and for their families and for us to be able to witness.

“It’s really good for their own self-esteem and self-confidence to feel like they can do those things and are capable of working with others.”

VIDEO: Lego therapy groups are emerging to aid communication skills in children with autism (ABC News)