Innovative gaming-based program for autistic and neurodiverse children attracts leading university investor

MELBOURNE, VICTORIA: An innovative program that incorporates video games to help teach social skills to neurodiverse children and teenagers has secured the University of Melbourne’s backing to help drive its expansion.

Next Level Collaboration, which successfully piloted its world-leading social capacity building workshops throughout 2021, is the first social enterprise to be spun out of the University and will be officially launched on May 26.

Co-founded by Melbourne Graduate School of Education senior lecturer Dr Matthew Harrison and speech pathologist and researcher Jess Rowlings, the initiative’s workshops employ evidence-based teaching methods – such as explicit instruction, modelling, and feedback – alongside carefully selected cooperative video games to teach a set of targeted social skills to groups of eight- to 15-year-olds.

Strong demand will see the program expand from one to five sites over the coming months, including a new program at the University aimed at tertiary students.

The Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, Professor Jim Watterston, said Next Level Collaboration, which has come through the Translating Research at Melbourne incubator program, was a unique example of innovative research merging with entrepreneurial thinking for social impact.

“There are more than 205,000 Australians with a diagnosis of autism, and we know many do struggle with social skills that are needed to lead productive lives,” Professor Watterston said.

“The growing popularity of video games in recent years has understandably sparked interest in gaming as an educational tool. However, until now, little research has been conducted into the use of video games for developing social competencies for students with neurological differences, particularly in a classroom-like setting.”

“This enterprise is at the forefront of important cutting-edge work and we’re looking forward to its continued contribution to the evidence base while changing lives in the process.”

Next Level Collaboration builds upon a design research project conducted by Dr Harrison in a Melbourne specialist school in 2019 with students who struggled with social, communication and collaborative skills.

The trial intervention involved teachers modelling 15 targeted social skills before students were given an opportunity to perform them while playing collaborative video games as a group. By the end of the 10-week program there was an observable increase in pro-social behaviours demonstrated by the participating students, such as ‘taking turns’, ‘giving instructions’, ‘asking for help’, ‘using a friendly tone of voice’ and ‘encouraging others’.

Dr Harrison said the response to the workshops had been positive, both from the children and their families.

“What sets this program apart is that it draws on the research evidence around effective teaching and explicit instruction but also factors in the needs of neuro-diverse learners,” he said.

“That’s why the workshops are highly structured, however they are also a lot of fun.”

Next Level Collaboration CEO, Ms Rowlings, who is autistic, said there was growing demand among the autism community for strengths-based programs to support social skills development.

“Autistic people sometimes need specialised support to develop these necessary skills, but traditional programs and clinical-style interventions get a bad rap due to a tendency to focus on supposed deficiencies or shortfalls and ‘fixing’ neurodivergent people,” she said.

“We’re pretty proud to have developed a social capacity building program that is effective as well as being a positive and authentic experience for the young people involved.”


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