An award-winning network of computer clubs designed for children with autism spectrum disorder is rapidly expanding across Australia, proving that technology can be a social lifeline for certain kids.
Dr Stefan Schutt, a Victoria University researcher who helped set up The Lab – a group of technology clubs that connects autistic kids with IT mentors after school – says the ‘networked lives’ of Lab participants are often complex and creative.
“Many young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are drawn to computers,” he said. “That’s not surprising given technology’s potential for exploring the deep, intense interests that many ASD kids have.”
Starting with a single centre in Footscray in 2011, the non-profit clubs have now spread around the country to more than a dozen sites including Geelong, Frankston, Darwin, Hobart and the Gold Coast.
Dr Schutt said many young people on the autism spectrum find it hard to navigate social norms and build social connections, often with costly consequences such as bullying.
“In online communities, autistic kids are more likely to find like-minded people with similar interests, and have less pressure to respond in ways that non-autistic peers find acceptable.”
Dr Schutt says club participants use their online and offline experiences in rich combinations that help them demonstrate their unique qualities and control how they are perceived.
“We see these spaces as differentiated ‘third spaces’ – created or appropriated by ASD kids, for ASD kids,” he said. “The Lab is making a difference because it offers social connections and skill-sharing from which participants can forge their own unique learning paths.”
Dr Schutt said given the woefully low employment rates and high levels of self-harm and depression among young people with ASD, schools that offer computer clubs for their ASD students can help them improve their quality of life and future prospects.