Young people with Asperger's Syndrome or high functioning autism and an interest in technology will have a new place to come together when The Lab begins in Ballarat next month.
The Lab offers individual and group mentoring, for children aged 10 to 16 on the autism spectrum, from IT professionals in web and digital design, programming and game making in a fun and safe place where they can socialise with others who share their interests.
The Lab will operate from Ballarat Tech School on Thursday afternoons from 4:30pm to 6.30pm from the start of next term.
Many of the Lab's participants struggle to engage socially at school and elsewhere, and so the degree of positive social interaction that occurs at The Lab is striking.
The Lab Network national coordinator Alan Morgans said The Lab helped prepare its members for a bright future after school.
"Lab participants have a high degree of freedom in how they spend their time. They may choose to learn practical IT skills, socialise with others, or play games alone or with others."
The Lab also helps to build a community of support, with parents and carers encouraged to meet in a separate room to share advice and resources.
Mr Morgans said apart from The Lab, there were few social or vocational opportunities for these young people, who tend to fall between the cracks of current disability and educational services.
"By definition, young people with Asperger's Syndrome or high functioning autism have average or superior cognitive abilities but may experience difficulty with social interaction, sensory hypersensitivity or poor motor skills and coordination,"
"They are generally not eligible for disability or mental health support, but their social deficits can be every bit as debilitating and isolating.
"Many of the Lab's participants struggle to engage socially at school and elsewhere, and so the degree of positive social interaction that occurs at The Lab is striking."
The Lab program was founded in 2011 and now operates at 25 venues across the country, with about 800 young people taking part last year.
"It engages primary to secondary school-age young people with autism by tapping into commonly shared interests in IT and computing and by providing a safe and welcoming club environment in which they can meet like-minded peers, create friendship networks and learn both technical (employability) skills and, equally importantly, the "hidden" rules of friendships," Mr Morgans said.
Ballarat Tech School director Sofia Fiusco welcomed The Lab, which helped the school to support all young people in the community.
"The Lab is a great example of a club mentoring young people by meeting them at their point of need and we look forward to learning with them in term three," she said.