Autistic Reflections on World Teachers’ Day

The best teachers don’t just see what is in front of them, they see what could be.

Twenty years ago, I met a teacher who changed my life: the late Christine Horvath. Mrs Horvath met me when I was a 12-year-old student with a lot of self-doubt. Mrs Horvath just “got it”.

To use her words, Mrs Horvath knew some school days were like a “herculean challenge” for me because of my hidden struggles: I was always double-checking things, always masking the social fears beneath. Mrs Horvath’s believing eyes for her students made her a walking blanket of safety and confidence throughout Wantirna College.

My words (so often used by I CAN mentors) “we push ourselves to grow, but not to breaking point” are a reflection of Mrs Horvath. I could always take risks with her at school. Mrs Horvath saw something in me that I couldn’t see through the “fog” of my anxiety. Her passion for building confidence levels and creating platforms for her students has been an unlimited battery behind my energy for creating school communities that embrace Autism.

Thank you, Mrs Horvath, for inspiring my idea for the I CAN Schools program. Your legacy lives on.

In honour of World Teachers’ Day, we’d like to celebrate those teachers who, like Mrs Horvath, strive to make Autistic students feel safe and accepted.

Chris Varney

Chris Varney paying tribute to the late Christine Horvath during the I CAN Network's 5th Birthday Celebration in 2018.

Chris Varney paying tribute to the late Christine Horvath during the I CAN Network’s 5th Birthday Celebration in 2018.

As a young person, I was very fortunate to have an extraordinary personal “I CAN Network” supporting me, including my main aide in high school from Years 7-12. I can still hear her voice telling me, “You are smart, capable, energetic and lovely – you can do anything you set your mind to, you might just have to do it differently.”  (I CAN Mentor)

My English teacher allowed me to excel in different ways because he recognised that not all students fit into a neat little box. The school system didn’t allow much flexibility back then but he tried to be as flexible as he was allowed (sometimes more than he was allowed) when it came to how I completed my assignments. A memorable occasion was when I got extra credit for reading multiple characters from the book “The Crucible” as long as I did then with different voices for the characters. In my version, Tituba sounded like Count Dracula.  (I CAN Mentor)

The teacher who made me feel most welcome would often ask me to stay back at the end of a class, and talk to me for up to 5 minutes about random school related topics, such as: friends, class, stress, tests coming up, study strategies. He didn’t do this daily or even weekly, it was just whenever he felt that I might need a friendly ear.  (I CAN Mentor)

My Year 4 teacher was AWESOME – and a cat lover, too! Whenever I would have a tough day at school, instead of blaming me or telling my parents that I was horrible, she would ask, “What can I do differently next time?”  (I CAN Mentee)

My high school aide helped me when I was having a bad time and got me into the I CAN Network as a mentee.  (I CAN Mentor)

There were lots of really obvious ways I struggled at school – I was bad at sport, I found the playground overwhelming, and I often had meltdowns. My Year 2 teacher always tried to position me in a positive light. I was a strong speller and he would ask me to proofread his work, which made me look cool and capable in front of my peers.  (I CAN Supporter)

My kindergarten teacher knew that the best thing for me was to be free to be myself. She showed me by the way she talked to me that she really liked me.   (I CAN Supporter)

My Year 7 English teacher was such a huge, important part of my high school years. Even when I wasn’t in her class any more she gave me extra books to read, she invited me into some of her Year 11 lessons when I was still in Year 8 and she also suggested great ways that I could be an advocate for my fellow Autistic students at my high school. If it wasn’t for her, I probably never would have found my way to becoming an I CAN mentor!  (I CAN Mentor)

My favourite teacher in primary school let us do “passion projects”, and we spent all term developing presentations about something we loved.  That’s a great way to make Autistic students excited about school and make us look good in front of our classmates because we are usually quite talented at info-dumping!  (I CAN Mentee)

My Year Advisor set up an entire room of really cool stim toys near the library. I can go there whenever I feel stressed without having to explain myself.  (I CAN Mentee)

My Year 6 teacher picked up on many signs I was anxious within the first few days, and is so unbelievably supportive/accepting/kind! She has helped me through many tough times at school, and still is.  (I CAN Supporter)

My Year Advisor helped me start high school well and find art enjoyable for the first time. She assists me in difficult situations and ensures that school is a safe environment for me. (I CAN Mentee)

My high school English teacher saw my potential as a writer which I didn’t see at the time. She made me feel proud to be myself in a world where very few people shared that view. I loved her classes and looked forward to writing stories and reading the books she lent me. I really wish I could find her now and tell her I am the author of six published books because I reckon she would be so happy.  (I CAN Supporter)


Follow our movement.