I am an Autistic man who has always loved telling and collecting stories. I am married to Karen who makes me feel great to be me. I am Dad to George who is making me see everything anew. I talk and laugh loudly. I regularly “escape” to my obsessions and I love investing in people’s confidence, because it builds my own as well. I am also lucky to be the creator of the I CAN Network, which comes from a very personal place.
Growing up, I knew I was different. My brain had to work so hard to process things that most of the other kids did effortlessly. Some other things were incredibly easy for me – like spelling! When other kids were kicking a footy around at lunch, I was off dreaming up elaborate tales and learning big words.
Within the classroom, I was a rule follower who treated each school day like a performance. After “playing my part” each day, I would come home totally depleted, often not moving from the couch for hours. I needed regular days off from school to recharge. I had so much anxious energy that I tended to “awful-ise” things: whipping myself into a panicked state over unlikely events. The main person who told me I couldn’t do things was myself.
Thankfully, I had the unwavering support of my “personal I CAN Network” of key family members, close friends and one particularly extraordinary Year 7 advisor who believed in me and who encouraged me to hone in on my strengths and passions: my creativity, my gift with words, my love of fantasy and of historical figures. Whenever I could focus on those things, I would feel safer, more capable and more confident. This was an important lesson that has stayed with me over the years.
Embracing my Autistic identity took a much longer time to unfold. When I was growing up, the dominant storyline around Autism was extremely negative and overwhelmingly driven by people who weren’t Autistic. I didn’t have any reference points. For years, I viewed my diagnosis as something to keep secret because Autism wasn’t positive. It wasn’t until I was a young adult working in the youth advocacy space – hearing the stories of peers who also felt marginalised or misunderstood – that I started to realise that I had an opportunity and responsibility to make Autism positive.
Increasingly, I had a yearning to tell my story. So, on 9 July 2009, in a very public setting – a speech as Youth Representative to the UN at the UN Youth National Conference – I shared with the audience that I was Autistic. I wanted to bust some myths around Autism. In the years that followed, I had many more opportunities to tell my story and challenge the assumptions that people made about Autism. In June 2013, I delivered a TEDx presentation that helped set the stage for the launch of the I CAN Network later that same year.
The I CAN Network is so personal to me because it was inspired by all of the things that helped me when I was growing up: highlighting a person’s strengths, celebrating their passions and helping them identify people who make them feel safe and accepted. At the same time, we offer something that I never had when I was young, namely Autistic mentors and a sense of Autistic community. When you bring all of those elements together, the synergy is incredible! We now provide paid employment opportunities to 34 Autistics who help mentor more than 1000 Autistic young people each year through our school and community-based programs, online groups and weekend camps.
A core mission of the I CAN Network is to drive a rethink of Autism, not just with the young people we mentor but for broader society as well. Often, when young people are brand new to I CAN, they come to us with a sense of shame and stigma around being Autistic. They have internalised the negative perceptions of others. It is exhilarating to see the change that can happen over time when they are provided a safe space to be themselves.
I will never forget what I witnessed at Aquinas College in Victoria in Term 4, 2017. Four Autistic Aquinas students from our I CAN program addressed their classmates at a school-wide assembly. They shared their own stories and talked about their Autistic pride. You could feel a palpable mindset shift among the student body in that moment, and it has endured.
When I was growing up, collecting stories was a way I built my personality and gained confidence. I am proud that my personal story is part of the massive, diverse and ever-growing chorus of Autistic voices who are reframing the narrative on Autism. I also value those who support and amplify our voices. Together, we can change the world.