Start a Lab

Interested in starting a Lab?

The Lab is a community based organisation that’s relatively easy to establish and offer to your local community. The Lab is run by individuals and local groups including community houses, local libraries and disability service providers. The Lab Network can assist with establishing your local Lab and provide administrative and governance support for ongoing operation.

The FAQ below provides answers to some of the important questions about starting and running a Lab.

Starting a Lab FAQ

The Lab is a technology themed social club for young people who identify as being on the autism spectrum. The Lab creates a supportive environment where young people can engage with mentors and their peers to explore interests in social gaming and technology skill development. The Lab aims to build self-confidence and positive peer experiences that provide benefits in engaging with social experiences, education and employment opportunities.

The Lab is a community based not for profit activity that is offered by a diverse range of organisations including state and local government agencies, disability service providers, neighborhood houses and individuals. Each Lab is autonomous but subscribes to The Lab Network, a not-for-profit company that supports local Labs and promotes the establishment of new Labs for the benefit of young people with autism and their families in the community.

The Lab model is designed to provide an experience that is unlike school and this is reflected in the kinds of venues that host local Lab groups. Local libraries, community centres, neighbourhood houses, community arts centres and even the local RSL are potential venues for The Lab.
The most important prerequisite is decent wi-fi given that poor internet access can easily derail a Lab session. There are no specific requirements though most modern venues have appropriate wi-fi notwithstanding local security protocols that can restrict access.
An ideal venue has a nearby second space with tea and coffee making facilities where parents/guardians can meet or relax during a session. It is not recommended for parents/guardians to be in the same space as participants during a session.
A room with a maximum capacity of at least 12 in a Covid safe environment is recommended which allows for a group of 10 plus two mentors. A larger room is ideal though a maximum group size for two mentors should be no more than 12 to 14.
Some venues charge rent for rooms, while others provide free or discounted spaces for not-for-profit groups. Rates of between $20 – $30 per hour are common where rent is charged.

Lab mentors are often recruited at TAFE and universities offering computer science, games development or digital media courses. Mentors provide the essential service at Lab sessions and a mix of an outgoing personality, empathy, professionalism, an understanding of popular video games and technology skills are essential prerequisites. This seems like a long wish list, but we’ve found many young people either have or soon develop these skills and the rewards they gain from their involvement with The Lab fosters a valuable professional practice experience. Almost 80 mentors are currently involved with Labs around Australia, many have a long-term involvement finding it to be a challenging and rewarding activity.

Lab sessions are unstructured but not unplanned. The Lab encourages participants to be involved in activities of their choosing. If this involves doing nothing, that’s fine too. The Lab encourages young people to engage with peers on their own terms and the mentor’s role is to encourage but not to direct activities. Patience, empathy and enthusiasm for social games promote technology skills activities at The Lab. 
Participants bring their own device to a Lab session. This can be a laptop or tablet.

The Lab is a cost recovery program. Participation fees are established to be as low as possible providing the greatest accessibility for families while covering the costs associated with venue hire and mentor engagement.
The Lab is delivered by a diverse range of organisations and individuals and there are a range of models under which The Lab can be operated. Some Labs provide sessions at no cost to participants while others are fee based to cover the costs of providing the service.
Many participants access funding to support Lab sessions through their NDIS plans. Participation fees should not exceed the NDIS fee schedule rates for the appropriate social and community engagement activities in a group setting. The Lab is not designed to be a ‘for profit’ activity.

Mentors are engaged on terms that best suits the organisation operating The Lab.
Where a Lab is run in an environment where staff are employed by the organisation, mentors usually become employees of that organisation. Where a Lab is operated by an individual as a sole trader under an ABN, the organiser has the option of engaging mentors as volunteers who are provided with an honorarium recognising their contribution to The Lab.
The type of engagement is determined by the host organisation based on their specific needs and operating environment.
The Lab Network can provide The Lab Mentor Volunteer Agreement that formalises the relationship that might be appropriate for a sole trader. This is similar to a local sports club that might engage coaches or umpires for a few hours a week, classified as volunteers and provided with an honorarium as compensation for the time committed to the club.
The Nab Network can provide mentor recruitment and training support with peer support available through a national network of close to 80 mentors.

Many participants use their NDIS plans to pay for Lab sessions provided they have either a self-managed or plan managed NDIS plan. Where a participant has an agency managed plan, because The Lab is not an NDIS registered provider, it is not possible to invoice the NDIA directly for Lab sessions. A workaround where this occurs is for the participant to have a split plan, part agency managed and part self-managed for the family to be able to pay for Lab sessions directly.
Lab participations fees are based on NDIS rates for specific line items covering social and community engagement and are calculated on the basis of the ratio of participants to mentors in a group. Lab participation fees should not exceed these rates.

The Lab can be operated by a sole trader using an ABN, as an unincorporated association with a governing group or as a company. Each model will meet specific requirements of the operator and you should seek independent legal advice to establish which will best meet your needs. An unincorporated association will work well for an established group that can easily provide the required officeholders. This can be challenging to establish from scratch.
A limited liability company will provide significant legal protections, but establishment and maintenance costs are high. A sole trader with an ABN provides the simplest but least protected model. You should seek independent legal advice on which best suits your needs.

Yes, you will require public liability and professional indemnity insurance to cover yourself and your mentors running a Lab. This is a requirement of membership to The Lab Network and is required by most organisations from whom you might rent a space.
The Lab Network can provide insurance cover for Products and Services and Professional Indemnity for yourself and your mentors at an annual cost of ~ $350. This is only available to Lab organisers who are operating as sole traders because it is a part of The Lab Network’s Associations policy that excludes coverage to companies or members of an unincorporated association.

The Lab Network is a not-for-profit company created in 2013 to provide support to the growing number of Lab venues and to support the establishment of new Labs. The Lab Network board of management has nine volunteer members with expertise in disability services, education, technology, marketing and governance. The Lab Network aims to make The Lab service accessible to as many individuals and organisations as possible for the benefit of autistic young people and their families.
The Lab Network provides governance advice and support through a range of policy and procedure documents and administrative support for groups and individuals through the Admin Assistant, a custom-built online Lab session management portal. Use of the Admin Assistant is mandatory for members of The Lab Network.
The Lab Network has initiated several formal research projects and studies to evaluate and provide best-practice support for The Lab model. These include studies by The Young and Well CRC, The Olga Tennyson Autism Research Centre and has been the subject of several post-doctoral studies.

Starting a Lab in your community

The Lab Network board members discuss some of the issues involved in starting a Lab venue in your community.

Introduction to The Lab