I am a tremendously positive and enthusiastic person. I think my positivity has a lot to do with my job – Founder and Chief Enabler of I CAN Network. I feel like I was born for this job. It might have moments of exhaustion, intensity and frustration, but equally it gives me endless energy, fulfilment and capability. I’m a very lucky bloke.
I built my personality based on my favourite book and movie characters. I am always playing the part of one of these characters! When I am in the zone, I’m acting like my own version of Dumbledore. When I am happy, I am like a von Trapp child in Maria’s very corny sing-a-longs (my Mum loved The Sound of Music!). I laugh loudly. I enjoy people. I think deeply. My escape from projects is my little routines – gardening, running in the rain, coffee, Fleetwood Mac, history and YouTubing Harry Potter. I’m never bored.
I have Asperger’s. Our Network Leader in Kyabram, Kate, says that life on the Spectrum makes you ‘highly focused, highly sensitive and highly creative’. I identify with that. The I CAN Network is my ultimate piece of artwork, sourced from the palette of my personal ‘I CAN Network’.
When I was 11 my confidence was rock-bottom. I had a teacher who knew my tipping points. This teacher had previously been a terrific teacher of mine when I was nine. However, at 11, I think she expected me to have grown out of my Asperger’s. I struggled to connect the dots in her maths class. I needed some extra support, which I think became frustrating for her. In fairness, I don’t think she knew much about Autism. Her attitude towards me became so negative that I started faking ‘sick’ days to avoid maths. I had given up. I had no character to play – no magic to give and no tune in my head. Negative ‘I Can’t’ talk festered in my mind: If I was such an effort to teach, would I ever be good at anything?
Fortunately I had a gutsy friend Erin. Erin was my whole network at primary school. Erin got me through maths. I would be glued to her side in that scary class. Not going to lie, I copied her on many an occasion! I would come home and Mum taught me the basics of maths, as I had completely shut down with my teacher. Erin spoke up about my teacher’s negative attitude towards me. One day Erin’s mum dropped off Erin’s lunch in her school bag outside our classroom. She heard the negativity first hand. One thing led to another. My teacher came to accept that I needed some extra adjustments and school became more bearable. That’s the power of an ‘I CAN Network’ – they keep both yourself and your influencers accountable to a strengths-based approach.
I floundered in later primary school. Kids were changing. The sports games were becoming more intense. School was becoming a little less creative. My interests were a hilarious collection of royal families, family trees, history, Gone With the Wind and the 1500m Walk! I was magnificently out of sync with the norm. Whilst I could laugh at this, I also had some humiliating loneliness. I struggled with friendships. Sometimes, when Erin was elsewhere, I would run laps around my school just as something to do at recess and lunch.
Universe to the rescue! When Mum and Dad reached their threshold of tolerance with my meltdowns (which were frequent!) I was sent to my grandparents Nan (Margaret) and Bob. Nan was a no-nonsense matriarch born during the Great Depression. I had no choice but to behave with her. Bob’s severe physical disabilities, induced by strokes, made him utterly defenceless. Though half-blind, Bob had a piercing set of eyes that could survey you entirely. He could tell I was terrified of life. I busied myself taking him to the toilet, washing and clothing him, taking him on walks in his scooter. In a short timeframe, my very sick grandfather became a friend, mentor and trainer. This precious human attachment filled the great emptiness I felt.
With Bob’s mentorship, I pushed myself into the world. It was very important to me to collect achievements that I could take home to him. But I couldn’t wheel Bob into high school every day. Fortunately it was a different mentor, also someone with physical disabilities, who filled the void: Christine Horvath, Year 7 Coordinator at Wantirna College.
Mrs Horvath was a magician with the human spirit. She gave her students time. She read into what structures they needed. She could sense what would make them feel safe. She looked upon everyone with believing eyes. Mrs Horvath could merely walk into a room and melt any students’ anxiety with her warm enthusiasm. She profoundly stretched my understanding of what one person could achieve in a school. With Mrs Horvath’s belief, I jumped massive puddles in early high school. She was there for me when Bob died. She died during my Year 12, and I stood at the back of her funeral service and told the sky ‘Let me do something with this’. When I made those first giant leaps into starting the I CAN Network, it was her character that I played.
I CAN Network is a rethink of Autism in a profound way. I created this so that Autism families like mine had available to them a positive framework for their future, rather than a stuffy medical textbook. We would love to see this network become a language for kids and young people so they are proud to be on the Autism Spectrum. Fifty percent of our board, management, staff and volunteers are on the Autism Spectrum. Right now 19 Autistics earn income through us. Making this a reality has required countless ‘I CAN’ moments from both myself and our team.
The I CAN Network exists so that Jenna, 15, now a mentor-in-training, can be anything she wants to be. So that people know Lochie, 17, is a confident leader because he has ‘I CAN Mentor’ behind his name. We exist so that Alexander, 8, grows up with so many positive Autistic role models that he will never have cause to limit himself. We are changing the game for the next generation of Autistics, and you can be a part of our movement.
Thank you to everyone who has joined our movement over the last month. We have loved bringing you Humans on the Autism Spectrum – sharing stories to create inclusive schools, workplaces and societies. We need your help. Join us by donating or giving monthly. Together, we can create employment opportunities for people on the Autism Spectrum, and can support schools and workplaces to celebrate their individual strengths.