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Victoria University program helps autistic kids connect through technology
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About The Lab

 

What is the Lab?

Mentors helping in a Lab holiday session

The Lab is a growing network of technology clubs for 10 to 16 year-old young people diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome or High Functioning Autism who enjoy working with computers. It offers one-to-one tuition by technology professionals in areas such as programming, 3D, digital design and gaming. The Lab started in April 2011 with a single weekly group in Footscray, Melbourne. The concept proved popular and The Lab has since expanded to multiple locations in Victoria (Footscray, Doncaster, Geelong, Ferntree Gully, Frankston, North Croydon), New South Wales (Hornsby, Blacktown, Dee Why), Darwin and Hobart. Plus more Labs are on the way. The Lab is guided by an incorporated national not-for-profit company, The Lab Network, and each local Lab is formed and managed by a local partner organisation.

The Lab’s approach to learning emerged out of previous projects run by its founders, a Victoria University researcher and a software developer. By pairing young people who have Asperger’s Syndrome/High Functioning Autism with tutors who have technical expertise in areas of mutual interest, The Lab seeks to improve the wellbeing and life prospects of young people who are often highly skilled but whose condition can lead them to fall through gaps in the mainstream education system.

What we do in sessions

At each weekly two-hour Lab session, two or more computer programmers and designers work individually with between 12 and 20 young people to develop their social and technology skills. We provide an environment where participants can share their interests in a wide variety of things such as gaming together, YouTube video creation and sharing, graphic design, programming and game development. A suite of free online programming and design lessons (www.thelab.org.au/lessons) can be accessed by participants at any time. During Lab sessions, mentors are available to help with any questions or issues, or to work with participants on projects of interest to them.

We've found that some of the most useful things first learned during Lab sessions are social and personal skills. This includes learning about how to work with others, how to make friends and how to interact socially, as well as simply feeling accepted and valued by peers with common interests. The Lab is about technology skills too, but typically the programming and design skills come a little later once participants have settled in. This can take a little time.

Our approach to Lab sessions

We take an unstructured approach so every session can be different. We want participants to undertake activities because it  interests them, not because they have to. This approach is deliberately unlike school, and is based on our experience with hundreds of young people. The Lab is designed to be a cool and accepting place to visit, hang out and learn while having fun. We don’t have lesson plans or run structured courses, beyond the online lessons that participants can tap into when they want.

The aim of The Lab is to develop a practical model that can be adopted by others. Its name and logo is deliberately neutral to avoid stigmatising participants, and to focus on their potential rather than the fact that they have High Functioning Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome.

The project team includes technologists, educators, a project manager and support workers for parents and participants. A parent support group is being developed, as well as an online clearing house of information for carers and young people.

At the Lab, we are committed to ensuring the safety of children in our care. We put this into practice via a range of policies and protocols, including screening of those working with children, training programs and complaints procedures. For more information on child protection please see http://www.aihw.gov.au/child-protection/#report

How did it start?

One participant helps another

The Lab started with a 2009 – 2010 VicHealth funded research project, Connected Lives, that looked into the possibilities of using technology to improve the wellbeing of disadvantaged young people. The team found that one-on-one technology tuition worked particularly well with young people with Asperger’s Syndrome. At the same time, the team needed a space to run its expanding number of specialist technology projects.

Inspiration for The Lab has also come through writer Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia Project, which sees workers on Eggers’ McSweeney’s literary magazine undertaking one-on-one literacy tuition with disadvantaged children. McSweeney’s workers are located in a shopfront premises alongside an after-school literacy drop in centre.

Educationally, The Lab is influenced by constructivist theories of technology-enhanced learning such as Greg Kearsley and Ben Shneiderman’s Engagement Theory, Axel Bruns’ Produsage, Greg Ulmer’s Electracy, Mitch Resnick’s Constructionism and the work of Professor Henry Jenkins. These theories focus on the importance of focused, meaningful activities that deploy digital technology to build on the interests of young people.