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Making Things Click

Children with Asperger’s Syndrome, team up to tackle Lego Challenge.

Within minutes of plopping down on the floor to talk to someone he’d just met on a recent Saturday morning in Arlington, Alex Brown, 13, had a question.

“Do you have toe fungus?”

It was an unexpected turn in the conversation. Alex’s interviewer was wearing flip-flips, and his toenails were not the cleanest though not fungal either. But Alex couldn’t politely ignore the sartorial and hygienic short-comings of first acquaintances.

Alex has Asperger Syndrome, a less severe manifestation of the symptoms of Autism. Although its symptoms vary, most people with the syndrome tend to miss social cues; all of the things, like those above, that most people follow unconsciously. People with AS can also be ultra-sensitive to sensory inputs. They are intelligent and often highly creative, but can be overwhelmed by unstructured environments.

“They’re the kids on the playground who are playing under the equipment by themselves,” said Karen Gorman, the mother of a child with AS. Fortunately, for many of those children, some games, like playing with Legos, just click.

“Legos generally are reliable,” said Karen DeCarlo, “They always go together.” She said both her her sons, Zachary, who has AS, and Nick, who has sensory-integration disorder, which leaves him easily distracted, love Legos.

“There’s a huge amount of creativity with these kids, so I think Legos satisfy the need to create,” she said, but they also meet Zachary and Nick’s “need to conform to rules.”

Alex Brown likes Legos too. So does Christopher Gerlach. Their parents all belong to “ASIS,” (pronounced “as is”) a support group for Arlington and Alexandria parents of children with AS. When Bob Brown, Alex’s father, sent out a notice on an e-mail listserv asking calling for children to enter a science competition involving programmable Lego robots, all of them and more answered yes.

The group has been meeting every Saturday morning since Sept. 18 to prepare for the FIRST Lego League Tournament in Ashburn. FIRST is an international non-profit organization founded by the inventor of the Segway Scooter to promote robot-building tournaments for high-school students. Its Lego League offshoot is for 9 to 14 year olds. They must build specified challenges with a theme of nanotechnology, then program a robot to complete them. A significant number of points are awarded for teamwork as well as robot design and challenge course completion, according to Brown.

“IT’S FINALLY COMING TOGETHER,” Brown said on Nov. 11, a week before the 16-team regional tournament at Eagle Ridge Middle School in Ashburn. For many of the “Nano Commandoes,” as the children call themselves, this was the first team event in which they’d had ever participated, and there was an adjustment period.

“When they first started they were all little independent bodies,” DeCarlo said. Months later, there are still independent bodies running around the room in Arlington’s Langston Recreation Center, where the team has been meeting, but they also cluster into pairs and trios to work on different elements of the project, such as adjusting the robot’s programming on an Apple computer, tweaking the pusher arms of the robot itself, or calibrating a crane to receive its cargo of a dump truck and hoist it into the air. There are still clashes - with another personality, a recalcitrant Lego device, or simply with a difficult-to-negotiate world - but there is little notice paid to the outbursts. For the most part, the children allow one another to be themselves. “They seem rude,” DeCarlo said. “But they don’t offend each other.”

She sees all of the children are learning valuable skills besides Lego construction. “They need to have social experiences: how to work together, how to solve problems, how to continue when someone has an anxiety attack.”

Karen Gorman said she is learning too. “It’s been a really hard thing for the parents to pull back and let them do their own thing, let them make their own mistakes, let them fix their mistakes.”

She said she’d tried to put her 11-year-old son Patrick on a soccer team, but it hadn’t worked out. Both she and Patrick had struggled to fit in with people who didn’t understand how Patrick’s behavior was altered by his perception of the world. “The level of anxiety is so much lower when we’re working in a group that’s so similar to each other,” Gorman said. “If one of our kids has a meltdown, it’s okay, we know how to handle it.”

“THIS IS A PLOW DEVICE,” Christopher Gerlach, said of his robot. It must push Lego trucks and “molecules,” roll precisely to different stations on a mat, and activate chain reaction levers. Gerlach has taken over most programming duties, running between the robot’s test runs on the mat and his computer on the counter.

“I like Legos,” said Zachary Decarlo, 14. He thought for a moment after being asked to elaborate, then said, “I like the ability to make complicated things out of simple pieces.”

Working with his teammates was not as simple as working with the small plastic blocks. “It’s kind of dysfunctional, but we try,” Zachary added. “We’ve gotten better at working together.” He said it was hard before they knew one another. “Now we know what to let other people do, because we know what their specialty is.”

But in any team sport, for every child who remembers a triumphant moment on the playing field there are ten that remember watching from the bench. “I don’t feel like I have a use anymore,” Alex Brown said glumly. He’d had a disagreement with teammates over the design of the robot. “I have Asperger Syndrome,” he said. “I get so angry.”

Bob Brown said it was hard to watch his son struggle, but he was watching him learn life lessons. “It’s experience,” he said, as parents and children packed up their supplies at the end of the practice.

Therese Gerloch, Chris’s mother, passed Brown with an armload of boxes. She called out to him, “We’re doing this again next year, right?”