Coming in from the cold

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The low key weekly get-together with computers having remarkable
results with teenagers

Anyone who’s ever known someone with autism, Asperger’s, ADHD or any of the other autism spectrum disorders will know of the social and mental isolation, the bullying and teasing, the ostracising and the day to day pain people with these conditions endure through no fault of their own.

Until the world is fully educated in treating people who are “different” with the respect and kindness they deserve, they will have to rely on the caring of an educated few – people like Mark Buckle, a health professional who runs The Lab at Hornsby RSL.

What’s the Lab? Mark explains:“The Lab is a safe place where teenagers who are socially isolated, who don’t make friends easily, who sit at home alone on their computers, can come and interact with others and play on computers at the same time.”

The Lab takes place every Saturday morning in two 90-minute sessions and is staffed by a team of volunteers with specialist IT skills who get it – they get the needs of these kids and how hanging out with others who are similar, works for everyone.

Kids from nine to 16 – mostly boys – sit at small desks and play on computers. It’s a simple concept – but the benefits and outcomes are almost immeasurable.

The extroverts like to be heard as they play; meanwhile the quiet ones who occasionally get distressed by the noise, usually those with Asperger’s, don headphones to shut out the noise. There’s the occasional altercation, averted with a quite intervention from one of the volunteer mentors in the room.

“The kids have told me that the computers are icebreakers,” says Mark who also runs Just Better Care Hornsby. “It provides them with a reason to leave the house. They can come and still sit on their own and not talk – or they can just sit and watch as others play games or watch videos.They’re not judged and they can be themselves.

“Parents are delighted they have an avenue to direct their energies into, and somewhere to go to. They can talk to other parents at the coffee shop downstairs, sharing their experiences and concerns. They report their kids wake up excited on a Saturday morning as they have somewhere to go to.”

He recounts the moving story of the 13 year-old boy with severe autism who’d been coming to the Lab for a while. He’d never eaten in public before, but one day when it was someone’s birthday and there was a birthday cake on the table, his mother reported excitedly to Mark how he had eaten a huge piece of cake. “To most this is a small thing but to this mother, it spoke volumes about her son’s feeling he could trust where he was and relax enough to eat. Apparently he even came back for seconds.”

The Lab has been running for four years and has seen around 50 kids come through its doors in Hornsby RSL. Turnover is low – most come and love the non-demanding space and just stay. They come from a range of backgrounds from all over north western Sydney, attending mainstream and specialised schools during the week. Five laptops were donated, though most kids bring their own.

They’re tutored in whatever skill the kids want to have a go at, by mentors skilled at tutoring in design, contouring, programming and games – Minecraft and Roadblocks are popular.

Unexpected newfound skills – aside from upping the communication between other teens – include using the phone for the first time so kids can arrange to meet up between Lab sessions. This in turn has propelled new friendships and outings like bushwalks,camps and picnics. Then there was the birthday invitations – no big deal to most – but to the 12 year-old who received one for the first time in his life, it represented a huge step forward in social acceptance.

And there are successes, though that’s never the intention: “One of the boys took to programming like a duck to water and won a Department of Education prize for it and is now programming his own video games.”

“And the first of the teenagers to turn 18 has just left the Lab and is now going to TAFE to study welding – something he could never have achieved without the socialisation skills he learnt at the Lab. Two others have left the sessions because they’ve landed part-time Saturday jobs.

“It’s tapping into the natural abilities and pushing them in a positive direction.”

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