14 May 2021

The Lab builds blocks of social connections for young people with autism

| Michael Weaver
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Man mentors students at computers at The Lab in Geelong

Mentors and students at The Lab in Geelong for young people with autism. Photo: Supplied.

Building objects with LEGO or writing computer code may hold the key to transforming how young people with autism interact now that a networking hub for people who identify as being on the autism spectrum has opened its first club in the ACT.

The Lab, a technology based social club for young people with autism aged between 10 and 18, has opened its doors to people in Canberra following successful pilot programs throughout Australia.

More than 30 similar centres operate in other states, following the initiative that started with a VicHealth funded research project in 2009-2010.

Professional mentors provide guidance for a range of self-development activities that focus on an individual’s personal strengths and enthusiasm for technology. The building blocks of LEGO and interaction through a Dungeons & Dragons group also increase participants’ capacity for social connectedness.

The Lab in Canberra now operates at the Marymead Autism Centre each Wednesday afternoon, and manager Helen Gardner says when she heard about the social benefits of the clubs already running across Australia, she knew there would be strong demand in Canberra.

“The Lab has been running here for about three weeks and the activity groups we’re running are oversubscribed, but there’s room for more people wanting to get involved,” she says.

“The group provides a very important outlet for young people with autism so I’m really looking forward to seeing how it benefits our community during the coming months. We provide a space for children and youth who identify as being on the autism spectrum to explore interests and connect with peers.”

Mentors working with students with autism at The Lab

Students and mentors at The Lab offer social connections for young people with autism. Photo: Supplied.

There are two professional mentors at The Lab in Canberra, and the group is funded through the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Helen says the group is already building its own network of friendships and technical skills, which she says will have a ripple effect through school life and a range of social settings.

“It’s very important for young people on the autism spectrum to have the opportunity for social interaction, particularly through shared interests,” she says.

“Everyone who comes to The Lab has an interest in technology of some sort, particularly coding or 3D design or gaming so we hope people who come can learn some new skills.

“But more importantly, the group focuses on people’s strengths where someone who has a particular interest can come here to develop that interest, too.”

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The Lab’s national coordinator, Alan Morgans, says it is vital such spaces exist for young people with autism across Australia.

‘’Part of our mission at The Lab is to help young people across Australia who are often socially isolated from their peers because they are seen as different,” he says.

“Our aim is for them to connect with others in a safe and inclusive environment.

“Isolation is a word we’ve heard a lot in the past year, and unfortunately the isolation felt by Australians was quite literally amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic among vulnerable communities.

“This is one of the reasons why we’re thrilled to be opening the first Lab in Canberra as we start to rebuild community and connection following a challenging year.

“We’re grateful to Marymead, a not-for-profit based in Canberra, which is facilitating the opening of the Canberra Lab and will be hosting sessions at Marymead children’s centre every Wednesday.”

For more information, including how to join the group in Canberra, head to The Lab website.

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