For most children, being part of a team – whether sports, cheerleading, or even a band or Scout troop – is a normal part of growing up. For children with autism spectrum disorder, however, teamwork is a foreign concept – except when it comes to the universal love of robots, as some FIRST® LEGO® League teams are proving.
“I look like a regular person, I have friends like normal people, I have favorite things, but I’m different,” writes 10-year-old J.P. Tasto in an article about life with autism for his San Diego school newspaper. “My way of thinking of teamwork is I want to have a certain idea and only that idea. It’s a bit hard for me to give up an idea.”
His mom, Traci, co-coaches J.P.’s team, the Masterminds, which in early November qualified for the FLL® Southern California regional competition at LEGOLAND®. “J.P. struggles with not always having his way because he’s so smart,” his mom observes. “FLL has been great for him in that respect. It really helps him focus, and it helps him to work in a team environment.”
Through his team, J.P. has come to find common ground with other kids. “Being in this group of three wonderful girls and five boys, he’s come to realize he has a lot in common with some of these other boys. They love Minecraft. They love video games. They like programming. They love robots,” Traci says.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.” Asperger’s Disorder is a common variant of autism characterized by impaired social interaction and non-verbal communication.
Thirteen-year-old David of Utah is, in the words of his mom, Ann, “an Asperger’s kid.” Though her son is gifted academically, “he doesn’t pick up on emotion or double entendres. He doesn’t understand euphemisms, sarcasm, or humor. He can offend people because they think he should know better,” she shares.
His tunnel vision can be a challenge when faced with ideas he views as unimportant because “he doesn’t logically see the value,” Ann says. Therefore, teamwork poses a challenge to him, though it was the programming and the building that drew David into FLL and his mom into coaching their rookie team. “He likes the subject matter,” Ann says.
David is not the only Asperger’s kid on his team, though he and his teammate share little more than a diagnosis. “One likes programming more. The other is more mechanical. One has a hard time sitting through the project sessions, and the other one really gets into the social justice part of the project – thinking about how people sometimes stereotype older folks,” Ann observes.
“All of the things we teach are good for all the kids. We may hit on the difficulties for Asperger’s kids, but all the kids learn good teamwork and social skills,” Ann continues. Recently, she was working on listening skills with her six-member team when one of the parents pointed out, “‘Okay, five of you are not looking at the coach when she’s talking to you,’” Ann recounts. “It wasn’t just the Asperger’s kids who weren’t giving me feedback. All kids need work.”
In his third year with FLL, Twelve-year-old Travis of Michigan has high-functioning autism coupled with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). His dad and coach, Matt, is quick to recognize his son isn’t the only team member with challenges. “It’s been helpful that we’ve had a couple of other kids who have struggled with communication and ADD issues,” Matt says. “Travis isn’t the only one who struggles with these sorts of things.”
Like J.P. and David, Travis has trouble making eye contact and reading social cues. He wanders as he talks with people. He prefers working alone rather than on a team. Sometimes he’ll have a great idea but cannot get the words out. “Because of his social skills, Travis really needs someone to guide him and be a social interpreter in some situations,” his dad says.
As someone who enjoys “the robot side of things,” according to Matt, Travis is learning his place on the team. “I’ve seen him make a transition from just being there in his first year to offering suggestions. It’s been a chance for him to use his visual-spatial skills and his planning skills.”
During FLL season, Travis seems more focused, Matt has observed, as he has to budget his time. His schoolwork reflects his improved focus. When FLL season is done, “the end of the year is not quite as exciting and focused for him,” his dad says.
With FLL, Travis has found a place where he belongs. “The Core Values set the stage where Travis could be accepted, even if he has struggles,” Matt says. “Because of Gracious Professionalism®, people are expected to be nice to each other. There are written rules that say you respect people for who they are.”
Ann in Utah has also found that the very culture of FLL creates a safe environment for her son David. “One of the things that’s so great about FLL is how it’s set up. Empathy comes naturally. It’s built in,” she says.