I’m 19 years old. I’m an I CAN mentor, an enthusiastic video gamer – League of Legends is my favourite – and last year I moved into my own place with four other housemates.
Growing up, I didn’t really have trouble making friends, but I did have trouble keeping them. You know that one kid who pushes a joke just a little too far or doesn’t know when to stop talking about something? That was me. Thankfully, I have some close family members who are Autistic – including my dad – so I didn’t have to look far to find people who understood me.
I was first introduced to I CAN in 2013, which was the same year it was founded, so I’ve been around since the beginning. I heard Chris Varney speak at a local support group event about his vision for I CAN school programs, and I fell in love with the idea of it straightaway. He talked about creating a model in which no one would be ignored and everyone would have a voice.
This resonated with me because my own school experience was not that great. In terms of voices, I was talked about a lot at my school – my negatives were a constant topic of discussion – but little was done to improve the situation or to highlight my positive attributes or those of other students with support requirements. In 2013, my goal as a 13-year-old listening to Chris Varney was to bring I CAN to my school and change the culture.
That part of my quest was totally unsuccessful, but what has been very successful is my personal connection to I CAN. I started attending I CAN weekend camps and over time became a camp mentor and then a school mentor. I’ve taken part in a large number of the camps that I CAN has hosted.
Because of the people in my personal network, I don’t hear a lot of the negativity about Autism that’s out there any more, though I certainly know it still exists. Many kids come to our programs with very, very negative perceptions of Autism that they’ve internalised from others. I remember one boy who came to a camp and could explode aggressively if he even heard the word “Autism”. But, two days later, he was standing up in front of his peers, giving an “I CAN talk” and telling everyone, “I’m Autistic.” That’s the power that can come when you are surrounded by peers who understand and accept you.
Our emphasis at I CAN on the strengths-based approach to Autism really makes sense. Autistics represent a big percentage of the world’s population. When society shuts us down and tells us that we are defective, it limits what we can contribute. When we are validated and believe in ourselves, we can do so much more.
Especially for Autistic kids, I think it’s important to get the balance right between genuinely building them up and not merely inflating them with hot air. Part of that process is letting them experience challenges and not always being shielded from failure. Something I tell my mentees often is that they don’t have to be perfect. Struggling is part of life’s journey. I think there’s a way that we can offer support that still empowers young people. I try to help my mentees build the ability to see their own strengths for themselves.
Still, I see a lot of students – and sometimes their families, too – looking for that validation in other forms, such as top grades or high ATAR scores. There’s already a lot of pressure for Autistic kids to get through the day socially and from a sensory perspective. When I help my students with any schoolwork, I always highlight the benefit that comes from putting in the effort and what can be learnt from making mistakes, rather than signalling that their worth is tied to a particular letter or number result.
It’s very rewarding to mentor Autistic kids and to help those who are not Autistic understand how to better support Autistic students. Every Autistic voice can help with this process, and I think it’s so important to include younger Autistic voices in these conversations. We have the most recent lived experience of the educational system. When you include and listen to our voices, you will be hearing what Autistic students need. Right now, in the school system as it currently is.
In fact, for me, one of the best parts about being involved in I CAN is that I know my voice is valued. I don’t subscribe to the pyramid approach, where voices at the top matter more than others. I view everyone at I CAN as a peer, including Chris Varney, our Founder and CEO. Even when I was 13, I never saw him as “Chris, the national leader”, and to this day, I don’t see him as “Chris, my boss”. He has always been “Chris, my mate who is a huge Star Wars head”. I respect him as a peer, and I know he feels the same way about me. We have different responsibility levels, but we are both doing the same work: building a world that embraces Autism.