The Lab supports children with Autism who 'don't have friends' to gain friendships, learn social skills

As far as job descriptions go it doesn't get much better than the role of psychologist Heath Fletcher.

Key points:

  • Founded in Victoria to help children with autism, demand for The Lab classes is growing across Australia
  • The Gold Coast branch has three classes with four mentors every Saturday
  • Participants who have never had a friend before are able to make social connections and improve their social skills

"My job is to make smiles, so it really is the best job in the world," he said.

It is a mantra you could imagine a dentist using, but Mr Fletcher is a mentor at a technology club on the Gold Coast, The Lab, where he works with children who are on the autism spectrum.

Most of his clients are teenage boys who have social anxiety and struggle to make friends.

Founder June Wells's own grandson attends the Saturday classes, but the club has three groups of 14 children with four mentors.

"Most of the children who come along don't have friends," Ms Wells said.

"They don't get invited to parties and often they don't have sleepovers.

"So things that kids grow up normally doing, often these kids miss out."

Tech helps participants rehearse social skills

Addressing social interaction is the main goal of the club and sessions are tailored around what the children themselves want to do.

Computer games and technology have proved to be some of the more popular activities.

"Whether that be learning IT skills or facilitating Dungeons and Dragons," Mr Fletcher said.

"Sometime the kids don't want to be there and the parents have made them come.

"Recently, I had someone turn up to The Lab and he very clearly did not want to be there, however after being there for a couple of weeks they are now in there playing Warhammer."

Mentor and psychologist Heath Fletcher and gaming class at The Lab Gold Coast

Heath Fletcher is a mentor at a gaming class at The Lab on the Gold Coast.(ABC Gold Coast: Cathy Border)

Mr Fletcher had to adjust his approach in order to connect with the children.

"When I first showed up, I was thinking it was going to be your traditional IT workshop [but] for kids who were on the spectrum, and very quickly I realised that's not what the kids were interested in," he said.

"For mostly teenage boys, learning IT skills is not super high on the list.

"So I ditched the college shirt and long pants for Watercraft and Minecraft t-shirts."

The professional satisfaction is immense, and one of the biggest compliments the psychologist receives is when a student tells him he is easy to speak to.

"You get to see kids who have never had a friend in their life make friends," Mr Fletcher said.

"You get to see kids who would not say a word be boisterous and loud."

Club opens door to social life

The Gold Coast club is part an Australia-wide network of not-for-profit technology clubs.

Normally the club has a waiting list, but some parents are cautious of returning until coronavirus concerns ease.

Student at The Lab and his mentor building structures for playing games

Students and their mentor enjoy constructing a table-top wargame together.(ABC Gold Coast: Cathy Border)

Most of the referrals come from psychologists and psychiatrists, also some occupational therapists.

The group receives no funding and in most cases the students' families cover the $30 class cost by accessing the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

Ms Wells says breakthroughs at club meetings are a reminder of how important social interactions are for development and the role friendships play for children.

"Only last week, one of the kids who has only been coming for about a month said, 'This is the best thing in the world','" she said.

A Brisbane mother who has been taking her child to the Gold Coast classes for two years, ended up hosting two other children at her home for a sleepover.

Other families have started camping trips together.

from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-11-17/t...