'It saved his life': Teen with autism builds world's largest Lego Titanic replica

It took Brynjar Karl Birgisson 700 hours over a period of 11 months to complete his Lego replica of the ill-fated Titanic ocean liner.

15-year-old Brynjar Karl Birgisson says building the Lego model of the ship helped him learn to communicate

Fifteen-year-old Brynjar Karl Birgisson sits in front of his Lego replica of the Titanic. (Submitted by Bjarney Ludviksdottir)
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Brynjar Karl Birgisson of Reykjavik, Iceland, was just 10 years old when he set to work on building what is now the world's largest Lego replica of the Titanic.

It took Brynjar, who has autism, more than 700 hours over a period of 11 months to complete it. 

Now 15, he says he was unable to communicate before he began work on the model.

Karl and his mother Bjarney Ludviksdottir, spoke to As it Happens guest host Susan Bonner from the Titanic Museum Attraction in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where the replica is currently being exhibited.

Here is part of their conversation.

Brynjar, what made you want to create this replica of the Titanic?

It was kind of like an obsession.

When I was around six or seven years old, I went to Denmark — Billund, to Legoland. And when I came in, I saw all of these huge, real-life scale models.

And when I walked out, I thought to myself, "I want to make one real-life scale model myself."

But I wasn't sure what to build. So after four years, I was searching around the internet about steam trains, because I was a big fan of steam trains at the time. And the recommendation list said: "The biggest steam ship EVER."

And then the Titanic came. It was amazing. I was fascinated by it.

Brynjar says talking to people about his creation helped him with his own communications skills. (Submitted by Bjarney Ludviksdottir)

What was it about the Titanic that fascinated you?

She was unique from other ships. At that time, she was the most luxurious ship in the world. She was more like a hotel than a cruiser. 

And what kind of research did you have to do to plot out your building?

My grandfather is an engineer, so he helped me a lot in the building. He taught me how long it would have to be, and he estimated the amount of bricks needed.

Brynjar with his grandfather Ludvik (Lulli) Ludviksson. (Submitted by Bjarney Ludviksdottir )

What was the hardest part? 

Well, the hardest part, I think, is the stern — where the end part is, the part [that] raised when it was sinking. Because the bricks were going really wide out.

It was really hard to get them to be sturdy because it was hanging on the side. The whole stern part broke. And I had to break it down after that, because it was so ugly. 

Bjarney, tell me what your reaction was when your 10 year-old son came to you and said, "I want to make a Lego replica of the Titanic."

I didn't [think] much about it. I thought it was just another game.

But when he started to ask me again and again, I thought to myself, "Well, I have to listen to him."

He was so determined that we could not say no to him.

It took Karl Birgisson roughly 700 hours over 11 months to complete the project, with help from his engineer grandfather. (Submitted by Bjarney Ludviksdottir)

Did you think he could pull it off?

To tell you the truth, I really did not know. At that point he was struggling in school, he was not communicating, he was in a fog. It was not a good time for him.

I thought maybe this project this would help him — and it really did. I say it saved his life. It saved his personality.

He came out of the fog and was able to communicate with people. I mean he had to. People were coming to him and asking him, "What are you doing?"

Slowly he started to speak more, look in people's eyes, listen and answer. Yeah, he was beginning to be much more social.

We never knew his story would gain such attention. In the beginning, we never anticipated this.

But what happened in the end was truly miracle. I mean, there's a boy isolated in his autistic world. And then all of a sudden, he's standing on stage encouraging other kids to follow his dreams. Unimaginable.

Brynjar delivers a TED talk about his creation. (Submitted by Bjarney Ludviksdottir )

Brynjar, your mother describes building this ship as saving your life. Can you tell us from your perspective what it was like?

My perspective was just keep going. Don't stop.

Like in the cartoons, you see the devil and the angel on your shoulder. I'm always thinking the same thing, that the angel is always winning, and don't let the devil stop you. And then my obsession keeps growing.

How did your autism help you with this project?

My autism helped me a lot.

Some autistic people have very big obsessions. They want to finish something. So that kept me going. 

How have you changed?

It was just like a maze. The fog was always controlling me. But when you talk more and more to people, you will get over the fog and you will become a better citizen. 

What's next for you?

Sadly, my Lego days are over. But the ship's days are not over. I'm planning to become a captain someday on a ship. And if that doesn't work out, my thought is to become a professional soccer player.

I'm a really big sports fan.

Written by Kevin Ball. Interview by Mary Newman. Q&A edited for length & clarity.

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