Small plastic bricks have become an unlikely tool helping to bridge the communication gap between parents and their autistic children.
Lego therapy helps children improve their communication by making them work with others to complete a model.
The approach was first used in 1999 when Dr Daniel LeGoff, a paediatric neuropsychologist, noticed two of his patients with significant communication difficulties chatting excitedly about Lego models they played with while waiting for their appointments. Therapists say it provides long-lasting benefits to children who struggle to communicate.
"It is my favourite approach because it is so fun to deliver," said Emily Alderson, a speech therapist at Hope Abilitation Medical Centre in Dubai.
"You can see how much progress the children make. And it's so flexible, so you can target so many skills in a session."
There are three children in a group, and each is assigned the roles of engineer, builder or supplier.
"The engineer is in charge of the instruction booklet for the Lego model. And the instruction booklet essentially acts as a barrier because the other children can't see what the engineer can see," Ms Alderson said. "It's only the engineer who can see those instructions.
“The engineer can then use the instructions to tell the supplier what pieces he needs to give to the builder. And then the builder has to wait and listen for instructions from the engineer.”
Ms Alderson first came across the therapy four years ago while working in the UK’s National Health Service training teaching assistants to set up the groups at school.
Now Lego, which has traditionally not been involved in the approach, is getting in on the game in the UAE by asking Ms Alderson to teach parents the techniques.
“Normally, parents come for a session, which happens on a weekly basis, and drops them for the therapy,” said Urszula Bieganska, head of marketing at Lego Middle East and Africa.
"But for us, the point was to get the families to play together and to provide them with the right coaching to enable them to do so." But before Lego invited parents, the employees needed to learn how it worked.
"Even for us being semi-pros building Lego it has been quite challenging, because if you have to describe to a person a standard brick, that is easy, but if you start to get a bit more sophisticated, you need to find words to describe that," said Ms Bieganska. "You can imagine how creative kids would have to be."
So far, Lego has hosted one workshop. But it intends to run more on an ongoing basis, based on the positive feedback the company received from parents.
"It was really great to see their engagement and the enlightenment they experienced," Ms Bieganska said.