Autism

"different, not less" - Temple Grandin

Autism is a life-long neurodevelopmental condition that affects approximately 1 in 100 people.
Ironically, for a specific group of people who share a desire for ‘sameness’ and ‘repetitiveness’, the latest edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- 5th edition (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) has gone in the complete opposite direction and introduced some of the most dramatic changes to its content and structure yet in the history of the psychiatric definition of autism.

All previous subcategories under pervasive developmental disorders (PDD), including Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), autistic disorder (AD), childhood disintegrative disorder (CDD) and pervasive developmental disorder-Not Other Specified (PDD-NOS) have now been removed and replaced with a single, broad category of Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Autism is based on a set of behavioural markers because there is no identified biological marker that is deemed universal to autism yet. Individuals on the spectrum are experiencing difficulties in social interaction and communication, as well as repetitive, stereotypical, special interests.

Gender differences in autism

The prevalence rate of autism is five times more common in males than females (CDC, 2012). One explanation, although controversial, suggests that males and females differ in cognition because autism is essentially an extreme form of the male brain (Baron-Cohen, 2002). When compared to males, the accumulating evidence suggests that the diagnostic process for females may be delayed (Beeger et al., 2012) or even missed completely by clinicians (Dworzynski, Ronald, Bolton & Happe, 2012). These findings feed into the debate whether our current diagnostic tools are specific enough to consider different behavioural markers between males and females (Nguyen & Ronald, 2014).

Dr Camilla Nguyen has a particular interest in working with high functioning girls on the autism spectrum. She has published cutting edge research in the area of gender differences in autism. Please enquire to download her research paper.

LEGO-based therapy

The increasing number of children and adolescents with autism combined with the profound social difficulties that they are experiencing, which is often exacerbated in middle and late childhood due to the increasing complex social milieu, clearly shows that services need to prioritise on improving social competence and promoting social skills in children and adolescents if further social and emotional problems are to be prevented. Group-based social skills interventions for school age children and adolescents with autism are not new, and there are a substantial number of them.

One social skills group that has recently become very popular is LEGO-based therapy. LEGO therapy was originally developed by Clinical Psychologist LeGoff (2004) in the United States. the idea behind LEGO therapy is to use LEGO, a material that children and young people on the spectrum are naturally drawn to due to its structured, systematic and predictable nature. Using LEGO materials might therefore encourage building together with peers in a naturalistic way to promote social skills such as verbal and non-verbal social communication, social interaction, joint attention, task focus, and collaborative problem-solving (LeGoff, 2004; LeGoff & Sherman, 2006; Owens et al., 2008). By building together in groups and each person having a specific role, this further reinforces structure, rules, and predictability to the constructional system (Baron-Cohen, 2009).

Dr Camilla Nguyen completed her doctoral thesis in LEGO-Based therapy with high functioning adolescents with autism. Her study was supervised by leading experts in Psychology and autism: Professor David Winter (University of Hertfordshire) and Professor Baron-Cohen (The Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge). Her study found that adolescents made significant improvements in autism specific behaviours, adaptive behaviours, social anxiety, and coping strategies following group therapy. Please enquire if you would like to download her doctoral thesis.

Camilla’s work in LEGO-Based therapy has also been featured in the Huffington Post. Click here to view the article.