12 May, 2011 Last updated: 29 Nov, 2014

A hi-tech learning club for young people with Asperger's Syndrome has opened in Footscray after a VicHealth and Victoria University project showed computer tuition improved their social skills, confidence and happiness.

A hi-tech learning club for young people with Asperger's Syndrome has opened in Footscray after a Victoria University project showed how computer tuition improved their social skills, confidence and happiness.

The club was inspired by a VicHealth-funded innovations grant research project undertaken in 2009 and 2010.

In what is believed to be the first of its kind in Australia, the not-for-profit space, called The Lab, will cater for local Asperger’s youth aged 10 to 16 years with an interest in computers and design. It will run on Thursday afternoons after school and will cater for six to eight young people.

Participants 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 in areas such as programming, 3D digital design and gaming.

VU Work-based Education Research Centre (WERC) senior educator Stefan Schutt and technical manager Dale Linegar said they had received significant encouragement from parents with children who have Asperger’s after announcing their idea for The Lab earlier in the year.

“We are very excited about the opening and giving these young people a dedicated space to express themselves creatively outside the constraints of a normal classroom,’’ Mr Schutt said.

“By pairing these young people with tutors who have technical expertise in areas of mutual interest, The Lab seeks to improve the wellbeing and life prospects of young people who are often highly skilled but whose condition can lead them to fall through gaps in the mainstream education system.’’

Mr Schutt said The Lab was created after he and Mr Linegar conducted a research project with VicHealth last year in which young people with Asperger’s gravitated towards the use of technology.

“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,’’ he said. “They can face problems in the real world, but when you put them in front of a computer they’re fantastic.’’

He said the study found that online technologies gave participants 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.

Mr Linegar said a parent support group was now being developed, as well as an information website for carers and young people.

“The Lab is about providing 'objects 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. That’s a really powerful thing.’’

View an interview with lead researcher Stefan Schutt and Dale Linegar discussing the research that inspired the club at http://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/Publications/Video-Gallery/Stefan-Schutt-John-Martino-Dale-Linegar.aspx