“In every day life we need to be able to respond to new situations,” says Deborah Napolitano, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester. “If a child has only a repetitive set of skills, and has difficulty being creative, it can be more difficult to be successful.”
Many children with autism spectrum disorder can become frustrated and uncomfortable when asked to break out of their repetitive activities and create something new.
Using Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), is losely defined as, the science of figuring out how to target and systematically change a specific behaviour. In this instance, researchers believe they succeeded in teaching children to play with Lego and building blocks, in a more creative way.
The study’s findings have been published in the Journal of Applied Behavioural Analysis.
By the end of the study the participants, six children between the ages of 6 and 10, succeeded in making changes to the structures they were working on.
According to a behaviour scale assessment that each participants’ parent or teacher completed, five (5) of the six (6) had moderate problems with restricted, repetitive behaviour. One-to-one sessions with building blocks took place at the participants’ schools, in rooms with minimal distractions.
“We really can teach kids just about anything as long as it’s systematic,” Napolitano says.
Children received positive verbal reinforcement when they were building with Lego. This allowed researchers to get baseline data and to decide whether the child seemed inclined to change the colour patterns or structures. After acquiring the data, researchers began with the first intervention phase.
The first phase of the study included a set of sessions that took place over several months. An instructor asked a child to build something new at the beginning of each session.
If a child seemed confused about what he or she was being asked to do, the instructor demonstrated how to build something different and then prompted the child to build something different.
If the child then understood and succeeded in building something new, he or she was rewarded with a small prize, such as playing with a favourite toy.
Moving from Lego
In the next phase, the instructor asked the children to build something new with wooden blocks, rather than the plastic Lego blocks they had grown accustomed to, to see whether they could apply the new skills to a slightly different situation from the one they were now accustomed to.
Return to lego
The instructor then returned the Lego to the children once again, without any prompting. Words of encouragement were offered but not a prize to see whether the children would still experiment. In this last phase, the children were once again rewarded for varying their structures.
A few months later, researchers followed up the activities with the children and found that they were all still able to create new structures in varying colours or shapes.
“The study’s findings could pave the way for new studies testing interventions that attempt to improve a wide variety of social skills and behaviors among people with ASD,” says Napolitano.
“With positive reinforcement and teaching sessions, such tasks as engaging in novel conversations, posing new questions, and creating new ways to play could be within reach for children with ASD.”
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