The whole world has felt the isolating effects of COVID-19 as we locked ourselves inside and shied away from crowded places.
For the young people with autism who attended technology clubs run by The Lab, the pandemic threatened to cut off some of their most meaningful social interactions.
But The Lab was prepared to pivot. Soon it began hosting online sessions which became popular among young people in need of human connection.
“We ran a pilot program about four years ago for running Lab sessions online,” Lab Network chair Paul Staubli told Information Age.
“These were designed so we could reach out to young people living with autism in rural and regional Australia who were facing being marginalised and isolated in two ways: with living with autism and where they were living.
“When COVID came along, we knew we already had the technology and training in place for mentors.”
Initially the Lab only hosted one session a week over Zoom, but before long it was running 10 sessions each week where the kids socialised, played games, and expanded their tech skills.
For a decade, The Lab has been quietly operating under the radar as its volunteer team of tech savvy mentors help young people with autism connect with each other and prepare for future careers through community events with a focus on video games, coding, and technology.
Starting as a small group in country Victoria, the Lab Network grew to meet demand as word spread. It had doubled in size in the two years prior to the pandemic with 32 community labs around the country.
Most of those community sessions were naturally put on pause during COVID-19, but the host venues – such as libraries and council sites – are keen to get back to running Lab sessions face-to-face.
Staubli has been involved with The Lab since its humble beginnings and said the community support has been pivotal for many of the young people who have been involved.
“The group of kids who started in that very first Lab still maintain strong friendships all these years later,” he told Information Age.
“We believe the experience they had at that time, as we’re seeing in all Labs kids, helped them build their self-esteem, retain their thirst for knowledge and facts, and keep them re-engaged with learning to the point where they can see themselves having a career down the track.”
Staubli said many of the children from that first cohort are now studying at university.
“We are seeing the skills and strengths they pick up putting them at a good place when reaching the next very difficult transition for them post-school,” he said.
“Many people on the spectrum face enormous obstacles when searching for meaningful careers and that’s something we want to help change.”
COVID-19 turned out to be proof that The Lab’s scalable system is ready for further growth as it reaches out to more young Australians living with autism and asperger's syndrome.
The network has also established financial support partnerships with two of Australia’s largest philanthropic organisations, Gandel Philanthropy and Equity Trustees.
“This latest support to expand the reach and the impact of The Lab Network is a natural progression for Gandel Philanthropy, and we are confident they will continue to make a material difference in the lives of more and more young people with autism, as well as their families,” said Vedran Drakulic CEO of Gandel Philanthropy.