Funded through public grants and private donations, Jean Gehricke's one-on-one Lego therapy approach encourages verbalization, problem-solving and behavior management while providing positive reinforcement for children with autism spectrum disorder. Steve Zylius/UCI

Most children find that playing with Lego bricks is sheer fun. For those who struggle with interpersonal communication, however, it’s hard work. The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders is using the building blocks as a socialization tool.

Jean Gehricke, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of pediatrics in UCI’s School of Medicine, is developing a research-based Lego curriculum to improve the communication and social skills of children with autism spectrum disorder.

During each 45-minute session, a trained UCI student and a child with ASD take turns building with the trademarked bricks and providing instructions. This relatively new form of therapy offers a straightforward framework in which to study children with ASD.

“Kids love Legos, and building things with blocks is incentivizing for them,” Gehricke says. “They’re on a mission to build and get it done – especially kids on the spectrum, who find the routine, repetitiveness and structured play appealing.”

In the sessions, students help children with problem-solving and behavior management while providing positive reinforcement. “During this pro-social therapy, all participants have to verbalize in detail. Sometimes, autistic children use words inappropriately, and the students will instruct them to use words in an appropriate manner,” Gehricke says. “We work on bringing awareness about this behavior by targeting cooperation and social and fine motor skills and building self-esteem.”

Over the course of 10 to 12 Lego therapy sessions, parents rate their children’s progress, observing their behavior and noting how their ASD symptoms change. During treatment and intervention, Gehricke collaborates with the parents to provide a continuum of care at home. “We monitor behavior and work closely with parents to show how the child’s behavior affects others and how he or she comes across in the family,” he says. “Children who were once socially isolated are now cooperators in a social environment. We’re building and mending relationships and helping parents bond with their children.”

The product of a public-private partnership between the Children & Families Commission of Orange County and the William & Nancy Thompson Family Foundation, in collaboration with the UCI School of Medicine, Chapman University’s College of Educational Studies and CHOC Children’s Hospital, The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders embraces opportunities to explore innovative, often multidisciplinary treatment approaches with potential to alter the landscape for families affected by ASD and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Gehricke sees children’s behavior improve dramatically with Lego therapy, which also involves cognitive therapy, research and working with parents. “As long as awareness is there,” he says, “improvement occurs. Sometimes, after a long period of time working with a child, you don’t think progress is made, and then it clicks – there’s a breakthrough.

“We had a patient, a little girl, who had difficulty expressing herself. She would respond to questions but never volunteered information. After introducing her to Lego therapy, we saw a sudden change. She was able to communicate for the first time. She loved the structure and looked forward to coming to the center. It was incredible to see how she became much more verbal and enthusiastic about the therapeutic process. She had a spring in her step that was never there before.”

Gehricke’s Lego therapy research is funded by a grant from Autism Speaks.

A Mission to Provide Help and Hope

The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders opened its doors to a new, 21,500-square-foot facility in May 2014, with a mission to provide help and hope to individuals and families challenged by autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Its translational research unit, UCI’s Center for Autism Research & Translation, unites scientists from diverse areas of expertise in a common purpose: to develop an effective ASD drug therapy.

Multidisciplinary research topics range from gene function to cell biology to brain function and behavior. Dr. J. Jay Gargus, Ian Parker and CART colleagues announced in September that they’d identified a possible biomarker for diagnosing certain forms of autism – providing a potential therapeutic target.

Supporters such as William and Nancy Thompson, who spearheaded the growth of the Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders, have helped in its transformation from a clinic offering evaluations and diagnoses to a nationally recognized evaluation, treatment, education and research facility. The center provides expansive services, including behavioral intervention, psychological testing and counseling, educational consultations, and speech and occupational therapy for children, adolescents and young adults.

“Without the Thompsons’ investment, this would not be possible. Everything is integrated in one setting, and UCI students can be part of this,” Gehricke says.

“Where else do you ever have such a unique opportunity to study a disorder like autism with such a wide-spectrum, collaborative research environment like UCI and the greater UC system and a center with 8,000 patients of various ages and diverse ethnic backgrounds? It’s essentially a dream come true for me and my students.”