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Using Legos To Help Those With Autism

Loomis Chaffee student Sofia Mansilla was back home in Brazil when COVID-19 was changing everyone’s life, shutting down essential services for those in need. 

One such person was her twin brother, Rafael, 18, who has autism. 

“During the pandemic we had to figure out how to stay engaged with him because his different kinds of therapies inside and outside school could no longer be held,” Sofia said.  

That is where Legos come into play. Sofia, her mom, stepfather, and stepsister helped Rafael with Lego lessons. 

“It was very helpful to him for his fine motor skills such as feeding himself, brushing his teeth,” Sofia said. “With Legos he would not notice we were doing therapy; it was just fun to build the Legos. That is how I got exposed to using Legos as a tool. I wanted to bring that to Loomis. I thought it was my time to apply all that I learned back home.” 

When students returned to campus after the pandemic, Sofia, now a senior, and other Loomis students worked on a similar concept, using arts kits for those on the autism spectrum at the River Street School in Windsor. This fall the project centered on Legos, which Sofia plans to bring back home to Brazil to an autism facility. 

Legos have been a favorite of kids for years. A box gets torn open, the instructions are there, and the object gets built. What inevitably happens is the instructions or some Lego pieces get lost after time. But as Sofia says, “In my mind there is no way you can be done with Legos unless they break.” 

The Lego project at Loomis Chaffee was all about using whatever pieces were around. 

“We accepted donations and started from scratch,” Sofia said. “We might have dinosaurs that look a little odd, that might not be conventional, but we had to use the Legos we got from donations. We took videos of the model. We didn’t have instructions for these, so we’d take a piece and take a picture, and when we had all the pictures together. We’d have a video [online] to show how the model was built.” 

Sofia has reached out to Lego in Connecticut, and the company is interested in the models she and her classmates created from scratch. Sofia, junior Charlotte “Charlie” Liss, sophomore Georgia Biasi, senior Savannah Mills-Hall, and sophomore Trey Dodd worked on the Lego project out of the Pearse Hub for Innovation (PHI). The PHI comes up frequently in conversation with Sofia. 

“As if you didn’t know by now, it is one of my favorite places on campus,” she said. “There are always kids in the PHI. And Mr. Mac is always there.” 

That’s Scott MacClintic ’82, the director of innovation, routinely found in his second home. Sofia said many other faculty also have helped and guided her at the PHI, including Jennine Solomon, Andrew Hutchinson, Jake Leyden, and Matthew Johnson.  

“Sofia is genuine and passionate about all she does,” Scott said. “She fits down here is [because] we’re about making things that make a difference. … So, it is not surprising she has found the PHI to be a home for her because she is very good at making things, and she is drawn to making a difference, with the piece of it that gets lost on many youths these days … without needing to take credit for it.” 

The PHI has been Sofia’s refuge, a place to work with others and unleash her creativity, a place where she has felt comfortable opening herself up to others. 

“With my brother I am part of a community that is aware of autism, but there are many students here who don’t have that experience, which is natural, so having the chance to share is important,” Sofia said. “I have been a bridge between their experiences and my experiences, and that has been very important to me personally and hopefully to them, too.” 

It has had an impact on Trey. 

“I am so much more aware of autism after Sofia shared,” Trey said. 

Sofia said her view of her brother is in part shaped by being twins. 

“I didn’t see my brother as something apart. … I didn’t see him as different, and I think that is being a twin,” she said. “Maybe it would have been different with a big age difference. But we were growing up together, and I think I saw it as a way of being.” 


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