by James Cifuentes
Having Autistic mentors when I was growing up would have been a game-changer for me.
I had very mixed results in high school. My grades were largely good and my aptitude tests were exceptional, but as I got older and my peers started becoming more and more social, I simply didn’t fit in. I struggled to understand my differences, and I really struggled to explain things to those teachers who viewed me as “just lazy.” Lots of things went wrong for me in high school, but the biggest obstacle for me was that I couldn’t see a path from the troubled young man that I was – I eventually dropped out of high school — to becoming a adult, with a fulfilling life of my own.
Years later, when I found my way to university after many twists and turns, I learned just how important mentors and role models could be. I was drawn to the I CAN Network for this very reason: to have the opportunity to be the sort of mentor to Autistic young people that I could have used when I was growing up. As I CAN’s Network Manager for Queensland, I have the privilege of personally mentoring Autistic students in several different schools.
There is nothing comparable to Autistic-led mentoring. We share many common experiences with the young people we support, and we can create a space where they feel accepted and understood. In our school-based programs, I’m seeing young people who previously felt very isolated now forming connections with their peers and mentors. I see them learning how to talk about Autism in positive terms and developing self-advocacy skills. I see them building a sense of belonging and community both within I CAN but also within their schools as they start taking on new activities that they previously thought were out of their reach (drama and performing seem to be favourites!).
At I CAN, we are really fortunate to have the support of some wonderful collaborators, including our partner schools, government bodies and the families of our “mentees.” Here in Queensland, the partnerships we have been able to forge with schools and with the Autism Hub of Education Queensland are vital. When we run a school-based program, the impact reaches far beyond the weekly mentoring group for Autistic students. We are also collaborating with teachers and staff to build a more inclusive environment in that school. The Autism Hub have been fabulous thought partners in helping us bring I CAN to Queensland. They are true leaders in ensuring that as I CAN continues to grow, we are positioned to provide meaningful support to any community that wants to engage with us, not just in areas with high population densities.
Indeed, as we expand our “on the ground” programs in Queensland and in Victoria, we are also really proud to be leading the way in providing Autistic-led online mentoring to Autistic students in Australia. We’ve been running small group online mentoring since 2017 and have had participants from across the country. While our focus to date has been on Autistic students who are preparing for and navigating their early years of high school, we are continuing to expand our capabilities so that we can offer small groups to a wider age range and reach traditionally underserved populations.
Thanks to our partnership with the Autism Hub, we are now launching our first set of online mentoring programs targeting Autistic students in regional and rural Queensland. These will kick off in Term 2. I’m excited that these programs will allow schools that might have only one or two Autistic students to connect with us and create the same sense of belonging that our face-to-face mentoring programs provide. This is a groundbreaking pilot that we hope will serve as a blueprint for others in the future.
In today’s fast paced, interconnected world, Autistic young people, their families and educators have access to a great deal of information about Autism. Unfortunately, a lot of it is misleading, unnecessarily negative and doesn’t reflect the wisdom and experiences of Autistic people. At the I CAN Network, we are dedicated to building a world that embraces Autism, and we are grateful to those who share that same vision.
I would love to see the day when every Autistic young person who is forming their sense of identity is surrounded by validating messages and knows that they are part of a much larger community. I would love to see the day when any Autistic young person who would benefit from mentoring programs like ours could access that type of support. I know these things would have made a huge difference to me when I was growing up, and I feel very privileged to be able to provide that support and encouragement to others.
To learn more about the I CAN Network and the mentoring services we provide, please click here.
To learn more about our Queensland pilot program, please click here.
To learn more about opportunities with our team, please click here.