01.07.13

How playing with Legos revealed an autistic child's pain

I was catching up on some late fall Instapaper reading and got around to reading Gareth Cook's marvellous exploration into the world of autism in the work place. The article follows Thorkil Sonne who was spurred by his son Lars' own autism to find a creative way for those diagnosed with autism to find their own way. He started a company called Specialisterne (Danish, for "the specialists") that employs autistic workers as consultants and finds them tasks that fit their unique dispositions.

The whole piece is worth a read and really shifts your understanding of autism from a disability to a potential boon (not without its problems, of course), but I was struck by one particular section involving Legos. Specialisterne uses a Lego session to determine which workers would thrive in an office environment and one encounter was particularly telling:

Frank Paulsen, a red-haired man with a thin beard who is the school’s principal, told me about a session he once led in which he handed out small Lego boxes to a group of young men and asked them to build something that showed their lives. When the bricks had been snapped together, Paulsen asked each boy to say a few words. One boy didn’t want to talk, saying his construction was “nothing.” When Paulsen gathered his belongings to leave, however, the boy, his teacher by his side, seemed to want to stay. Paulsen tried to draw him out but failed. So Paulsen excused himself and stood up.

The boy grabbed Paulsen’s arm. “Actually,” he said, “I think I built my own life.”

Paulsen eased back into his seat.

“This is me,” the boy said, pointing to a skeleton penned in by a square structure with high walls. A gray chain hung from the back wall, and a drooping black net formed the roof. To the side, outside the wall, two figures — a man with a red baseball cap and a woman raising a clear goblet to her lips — stood by a translucent blue sphere filled with little gold coins. That, the boy continued, represented “normal life.” In front of the skeleton were low walls between a pair of tan pillars, and a woman with a brown pony tail looked in, brandishing a yellow hairbrush. “That is my mom, and she is the only one who is allowed in the walls.”

One of the powerful aspects of play is that it can speak words where our own vocabularies are short. I wonder what my Lego days said about my own childhood.