Will, 29.

I’m a 29-year-old lawyer and the Stakeholders Director at the I CAN Network. I previously served in the Australian Army before pursuing a legal career and was admitted as a Barrister and Solicitor in Victoria in 2016. I’ve recently stepped away from legal practice to start my own social enterprise consulting firm, named procausa. Now, I have the freedom to work with social enterprises and start-ups looking to change the world for the better – something I love dearly. I set my own schedule, make my own rules and share my passion and experience with those who need it. What more could you ask for?

When I was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome as a six-year-old, I was assessed as being “borderline not intellectually disabled” and was referred for a specialist opinion immediately thereafter. This second opinion, delivered one year later, diagnosed me with a “Schizotypal Personality” and essentially branded me as psychotic because I reportedly lacked empathy, yet was able to make eye contact, take turns and apologise when contextually appropriate. Interestingly, last year at the Victorian Autism Conference I met with the latter diagnostician after 21 years and we were able to reflect on this diagnostic exercise and critically evaluate its accuracy.

These two diagnoses combined left my parents with an incredibly confusing understanding as to what to do next. What do you do when you’re told your son is borderline “not” intellectually disabled? What does that actually mean? The lack of support and advice from these specialists meant that my parents were upset, angry and confused. Medications were prescribed but these were refused outright, and instead the psychologist was given a serve (read into that what you will). My mother was inclined to enrol me in a specialist school, yet my father demanded that I stay in mainstream schooling, which I did. Over time, my passions became more obvious to my teachers but I was labelled as a learning challenge. Instead of doing my maths work, I would draw aeroplanes or dinosaurs (I started primary school just before Jurassic Park came out, and rather justifiably I think, velociraptors and tyrannosauruses were my favourites). Instead of writing in my school diary each week, talking about my weekend, I would write about history and science fiction. Eventually, my teachers grew frustrated with this oppositional defiance. I was placed in a remedial class where we were taught “life skills”, like how to catch a bus or create and follow a shopping list. This was without a doubt the most underwhelming and depressing aspect of my primary schooling life. When I refused to participate in that too, I was put back into regular classes and went back to doing the same things as before.

Then, miraculously, the school had a change of heart. My teachers and principals observed that I was likely not engaged or intellectually stimulated in class, which lead to my preference for embarking on more artistic endeavours during school time. I was sent to a specialist program called GATEways (Gifted and Talented Education) for two weeks, which involved facilitators working closely with me on subject areas that interested me, such as art, writing and drama. The net result of this was that I came back to my primary school feeling enlightened and empowered because someone had listened and genuinely took the time to celebrate what I was interested in. From then on, my school took every opportunity to channel my creative interests and my academic performance skyrocketed. This continued long into secondary school and beyond.

I think what helped me in particular was a staunch refusal to budge – consistent with a trend that people on the Autism Spectrum may present with a particular set of interests which they pursue keenly. I’ve not budged from this behaviour since – anyone who knows me well knows I’m the stubborn sort. Of course this can be a good thing and a bad thing depending on one’s circumstances. In this instance, by simply refusing to force a change upon myself that was making me distinctly uncomfortable and feel undervalued, the school I was in was instead forced to look at my engagement in a different way and explore alternate avenues to re-engage me in the curriculum. When that approach was embraced, I think both the school and I showed that my earlier diagnoses weren’t at all indicative of my abilities and instead showed that children learn and express themselves in different ways – demonstrated by my dramatically improved academic results following my return from GATEways.

Adaptive approaches to education, rather than a combative one towards learning differences, meant that my schooling experience changed radically and I could actually enjoy the process of learning, rather than trying to be forced as a “square peg into a round hole”. When I finished schooling, I went on to study commerce and law, which gave me the foundations I needed for a career in corporate governance. It was at the conclusion of my legal training that I met the co-founder and now Chief Enabling Officer of the I CAN Network, Chris Varney (he and I were in the same year level together at primary school and hadn’t seen or spoken to one another in 15 years) who invited me to assist with the establishment of the I CAN Network as a more rigorous social enterprise. This opportunity had a distinct allure: I’d been involved in charities and social enterprises in governance contexts before, but many of these focused on generating public discourse around issues such as environmental conservation, human rights and gender equity in management roles. The I CAN Network stood out for me because it was all about creating peer-driven solutions to the same challenges I’d faced in primary school. I was keen to ensure that through my contributions other students on the Autism Spectrum would have the opportunity to learn in flexible, supportive learning environments and enjoy the same success I did. By engaging directly with schools, businesses, governments and philanthropic organisations to continually drive our “AWEtism rethink”, grow the I CAN Network, and execute upon its strategy, I’m proud to have the opportunity to do just that.

The I CAN Network offers peer group mentoring to students on the Autism Spectrum in conjunction with professional development training for staff and motivational talks to the whole-of-school environment so that schools have a platform for the realisation, channelling and celebration of their interests and talents. In particular, each program has a creative module which gives students the opportunity to not only do what they love, but also develop their ideas to the extent that they can exhibit their skills or creations at our AWETISM Expos, which we run annually. Through these programs, the I CAN Network is able to support students both directly and indirectly via a whole-of-school approach to embracing the Autism Spectrum, so that students are able to learn in environments more appropriately tailored towards their support needs (whatever those may be), and geared towards helping them succeed.

Autism has never been a barrier to success for me. I’ve always been happiest when I’m doing what I love, whether those pursuits are intellectual, recreational or artistic, and being on the Spectrum just means I can focus on each of those things with an enormous supply of intensity. When you become absorbed or wholly engrossed in your work, the rest of the world “blocks out” and doesn’t matter. I think there’s something that’s weirdly therapeutic about that. Be sure to try it sometime!

Will is creating the society that he deserves in his work with the I CAN Network – an organisation that is predominantly led by people on the Autism Spectrum. 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.

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