A Victoria University research team is opening a hi-tech learning club in Footscray for young people with Asperger's Syndrome after studies showed online interaction improved their social skills.
In what is believed to be the first of its kind in Australia, the not-for-profit space, called The Lab, will cater for eight local Asperger's youth with an interest in computers and design.
They will learn from computer programmers and designers who are already working in the space, developing virtual world technologies for VU, Monash University, Canberra Institute of Technology and private companies. These technical experts will work with the young people on a one-to-one basis.
VU Work-based Education Research Centre (WERC) senior educator Stefan Schutt and technical manager Dale Linegar, who have worked with Asperger's youth in Melbourne and Gippsland, are readying the space for opening next month.
"Through a research project with VicHealth last year we noticed how young people with Asperger's Syndrome seem to gravitate towards the use of technology,'' Mr Schutt said.
"Kids with Asperger's often have very high IQs and they're really gifted but they don't have the social skills that most other kids do. They can be dysfunctional in the real world, but when you put them in front of a computer they're fantastic.''
Mr Schutt said the study found that online technologies gave those they worked with the confidence to learn about social interaction because it was seen as safe, mediated and not as confronting as face to face contact. They also valued the chance to meet others with the condition.
"The skills of these kids are not being recognised and they end up falling through the cracks. They're not being nurtured and the energy gets misdirected and they have all kinds of problems at school. If their talent is channelled in the right way they will end up being a real boon to society in terms of what they can offer.''
Mr Schutt praised Mr Linegar for getting the project off the ground. The pair plan to run the club for "at least five years", with the possibility of support from the Inspire Foundation.
Mr Linegar said he hoped the space would provide an environment where young people could teach and learn from each other, as well as from the technical experts.
"It's about providing an 'object of affinity' for these kids, in this case technology, which they can chat about and analyse together,'' he said. "The most positive thing is showing the families of these kids that they are talented.
"When we told the mother of a 12-year-old boy that he is really smart and could succeed in life with the right support, she cried because nobody has ever told her that before.''
For interview: Stefan Schutt on 0410 387 622
Daniel Clarke, Media Officer,
VU Marketing and Communications Department
Ph: 9919 9491 or 0407 771 072