A collaborative research project involving Flinders Caring Futures Institute researchers and Autism SA examining the effects of LEGO® robotics therapy on young people on the spectrum has reached its final stages of data collection.
The study is investigating whether these interactive group sessions can reduce anxiety and improve social skills among autistic adolescents.
LEGO® therapy uses children’s natural interests to motivate learning and encourage collaboration with others, building skills in communication, problem solving, negotiating, turn-taking and cooperation.
Associate Professor Pammi Raghavendra, Associate Professor Belinda Lange and Dr David Hobbs from Flinders are working with Associate Professor David Trembath of Griffith University and Autism SA on the two-year project, with funding from the Channel 7 Children’s Research Foundation.
Lead Investigator Associate Professor Raghavendra says she was drawn to the research area after learning about positive benefits of LEGO® therapy in younger autistic children.
“It helps the children in terms of collaborative problem-solving and working together meaningfully,” Associate Professor Raghavendra explains. “It’s not just a child playing with LEGO®, there is actually a therapy approach behind it.”
The research team has made the activity more age-appropriate and engaging for teenagers by allowing them to build a robot using LEGO® that had been pre-programmed to interact and move.
The study is demonstrative of Caring Futures Institute researchers contributing to better communities and increasing wellbeing in all age groups.
Niki Welz, Training, Consultancy and Research Manager at Autism SA says the team was motivated by emerging research that showed tapping into someone’s passions, interests and strengths could help them develop skills in important areas like communication and social interaction.
“That’s something that really excited us early on in the project, and why we thought this type of intervention would be really beneficial and support positive outcomes for adolescents on the spectrum,” she says. “Interest-based development groups were an important focus.”
Four high schools in Adelaide’s southern suburbs have taken part in the project, involving students between the ages of 13 and 16 on the spectrum.
“We targeted schools that had expressed interest in running unstructured or interest-based groups previously, where we knew there was a large cohort of autistic students,” Niki says.
Students formed groups of three, meeting up on a weekly basis over eight weeks. Two experienced practitioners from Autism SA were tasked with running the 45-minute sessions, guiding the students through building the robot and undertaking specific challenges.
“The preliminary feedback from the students has been positive. ‘It was fun, it was interesting, it was engaging.’ Those are the words that keep coming back from the students,” Associate Professor Raghavendra says.
Facilitators observed improvements in a range of communication and social skills, while from a mental health perspective they noticed a boost in confidence, self-esteem and belonging.
“Often, the participants would come in, isolated and disconnected from one another, but at the end of the sessions they were finding commonalities and able to start conversations,” Niki says. “It really spurred on that additional connection.”
Associate Professor Raghavendra says the team is measuring the impact of the sessions by asking the students about their motivation and engagement at school, social skills, and usability of LEGO® robotics before and after the eight-week-long project using online questionnaires and open-ended questions.
Those closest to the students also record their observations.
“By asking the students’ parents and teachers to complete questionnaires, we are measuring if there is change in their anxiety levels and their social skills.”
While the project was warmly received by participants, the pandemic did present some challenges when mask wearing became compulsory in South Australian high schools.
“You miss a lot of the non-verbal communication in terms of facial expressions when observing someone wearing a mask, so I think it might have had a subtle impact on the data collection,” Associate Professor Raghavendra suggests.
Above all, the project has provided a social outlet for the students during a time of great disruption.
The researchers hope the project will build capacity to eventually allow any school to introduce the activity to benefit students on the spectrum, focusing on their interests and strengths. To achieve this goal, the team will produce a training manual and resource kit to support implementing LEGO® robotics therapy programs in education settings or elsewhere in the community.
The research team aims to produce a preliminary report by mid-2022.
“We will have lots of recommendations about how future LEGO® robotics sessions can be run and I really hope there will be more research in this area,” Associate Professor Raghavendra says. “This is only just the beginning.”