LEGO-based therapy helping children with autism

Mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young people. They include depression, anxiety and conduct disorder and are often a direct response to what is happening in their lives.

However, according to the Mental Health Foundation, 70% of children and young people who experience a mental health problem have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age. Specialist mental health services are struggling to meet demand and most interventions for children and young people are based on research or developments for adult interventions.

Researchers at Hull York Medical School and the University of York are at the forefront of research and developments which are transforming mental health interventions for children and young people with a range of conditions


Traditionally children and adolescent mental health research is based around interventions that have been used in adult populations, but our research is focused on developing and researching interventions which take into account their specific needs and ultimately improve their lives.

Professor Barry Wright Director of Research (York) and Professor of Child Mental Health


Professor Barry Wright, Director of Research (York) and Professor of Child Mental Health, and his colleagues recently launched the Child Orientated Mental Health Intervention Centre (COMIC) in partnership with Leeds and York Partnership Foundation NHS Trust to provide a focus for much needed research into child mental health.

The Centre aims to improve the lives of hearing and deaf children and young people suffering from mental health issues. The focus of the research includes mental health issues relating to childhood phobias; socialisation issues connected to autism; and detecting autism in deaf children.

Practical interventions

One of the Centre’s studies, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), investigates the efficacy of LEGO-based therapies in children diagnosed with autism. Children on the autism spectrum can enjoy socialising when they are part of a small group and interacting around factual or practical based activities, such as LEGO.

Dr Lina Gega, Reader in Mental Health at Hull York Medical School and co-Director of the Centre, said: “We want to help shape child-friendly treatments for mental health that have been influenced by children themselves.  In order to find successful interventions to the some of the challenges children face, we have to first understand their world.

“One of our new studies on childhood phobias, for example, demonstrates how stressful it can be for a child to receive multiple NHS treatment sessions. Up to 10% of children suffer from severe phobias that can have a life-long debilitating impact if not treated early on.

“NHS resources are limited for the repeat visits that cognitive behavioural therapies require, however, and so Centre researchers will investigate new treatment methods that can be delivered in one session, to reduce the stress on the child and NHS resources.”

Screening methods

A Medical Research Council study in changing autism assessment methods for deaf children is also being conducted by the Centre. Studies show that deaf children are more commonly diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) than their hearing peers, and yet assessment methods are only designed for hearing children.

The new Centre aims to determine whether the behavioural characteristics of autism are manifested in the same way in both deaf and hearing children, with a view to adapting current screening and assessment methods to suit deaf children.

Researchers at the University of York and Hull York Medical School have a proven track record of research in mental health. This research is multidisciplinary and is conducted in collaboration with practising clinicians and those who live with mental health issues. From research into self-management of diabetes for patients with severe mental illness, to designing more effective interventions in childhood, and identifying and alleviating the causes of depression in older adults this research is impacting the way mental health is understood, diagnosed and treated for a wide range of patients.