I CAN In the Media

Schools try out a ‘can do’ approach to funding for disabled students

For decades, desperate families wanting to secure disability funding from their state school have had to go through the confronting process of describing exactly what their children can’t do. But that’s set to change, with the Andrews government trialling a new assessment that focuses on the strengths of students with disability, instead of their weaknesses. Read the full article, featuring comments from our CEO Chris Varney, in The Age.

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ARTICLE: A life lesson in acceptance (The Standard, May 2017)

A life lesson in acceptance (Original article posted at The Standard)

I CAN South West is the regional branch of the broader I CAN Network; a not for profit organisation created and run by autistic people for autistic people. They provide mentoring and support for young people on the autism spectrum, catering also for a wide range of learning, social and emotional differences or difficulties.

The aim of the program and the network as a whole is to enable a world which embraces and accepts autism. They are achieving this thanks to mentoring programs and community efforts through fundraising, advocacy and consultancy. These efforts help to build a network around participating young people through the inclusion of school communities and positive family relationships.

The vision for I CAN South West came from Lisa and Anthony Boyle, who live in Mepunga and wanted to make the I CAN program accessible to young people across the region. Their idea inspired the I CAN team to create a regional mentoring strategy, choosing south west Victoria as I CAN’s first regional pilot.

The network believe there needs to be a re-think towards autism and a greater acceptance of neurological diversity. The backbone of the I CAN mentoring model is its strength-based approach, which celebrates the incredible gifts which an autistic mind presents.

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Article: CCS student profile: Victoria Berquist (Monash University’s Central Clinical School Blog, Apr 2017)

CCS student profile: Victoria Berquist (Original article posted at Monash University’s Central Clinical School Blog)

Victoria Berquist has just begun her first year as an intern at Alfred Health. She studied undergraduate medicine at Monash University and in 2015, Victoria undertook a Bachelor of Medical Science (Honours) research year at the Central Clinical School for which she was awarded the Hatem Salem Award for Medical Research Student Excellence.

Can you tell me a bit about the research you undertook in your honours year?

I worked with the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Alfred in association with the Burnet Institute. My project was looking at the effect of bacteria in periodontal disease and any association that these bacteria had to cardiovascular events in people living with HIV.

We know that in the general population dental disease has a correlation with cardiovascular disease, which is thought to be mediated by dental bacteria getting into the bloodstream through processes such as chewing, brushing teeth or any other associated dental movements that create wounds, sores or micro tears. The bacteria in the blood cause mild chronic inflammation which the heart doesn’t deal well with. The inflammation damages the lining of our blood vessels which allows platelets and other build-up to occur, creating plaques and causing heart disease. I used lab techniques to measure dental bacteria in people’s blood and saw if that was associated with them having a cardiovascular event.

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Article: I CAN Kyabram can do it (KYABRAM FREE PRESS, MAR 2017)

I CAN Kyabram can do it (Original article posted at Kyabram Free Press)

KYABRAM is taking the next step towards embracing the possibilities of autism by bringing I CAN Network to our town’s secondary schools.

I CAN Kyabram is the collective vision of Campaspe Youth Partnerships, Kyabram P-12 College, St Augustine’s College and Chris Varney, the Chief Enabling Officer of I CAN Network.

Mr Varney shared his journey and explained what I CAN Network is about at information sessions held last October, and hopes to continue educating the Kyabram and district community at upcoming events.

Funded by Kyabram P-12 College on a community level, Mr Varney said the project will involve student talks, staff and parent briefings and the roll-out of I CAN Network’s mentoring programs in the schools.

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Article: ParentPaperwork Case Study – I CAN Network, its mission and its activities (ParentPaperwork, Oct 2016)

ParentPaperwork Case Study – I CAN Network, its mission and its activities (Original article posted at ParentPaperwork)

By Fiona Boyd

James Ong is the Director (Central) of the I CAN Network, Australia’s first social enterprise founded by people with Autism, and a ParentPaperwork customer. James recently spoke to ParentPaperwork’s Fiona Boyd and explained the origins of I CAN, its mission and its activities.

What was the reason, genesis story, for the I CAN network?

I met Chris Varney (the Founder of I CAN network) in 2012 while I was in a leadership program in university. Chris disclosed that he was on the Autism Spectrum and I also disclosed privately to him that I was also on the spectrum. Chris had an idea about helping people like ourselves that we kept talking about throughout 2013. We finally opened I CAN Network in September 2013.

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ARTICLE: Wedge Park teachers raise $5300 for autism (Star Weekly, Sept 2015)

Wedge Park teachers raise $5300 for autism (Original article posted at Star Weekly)


The lives of Sam and Chelsea Bowman changed when their nephew Liam was diagnosed with autism last year.

Since then the Bowmans have learned all about the disorder and the struggles people dealing with it face – including three-year-old Liam.

So when Ms Bowman stumbled upon the AWEgust for AWEtism campaign on Facebook, she knew they had to be involved.

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ARTICLE: Program puts good face on having autism (Sunraysia Daily, July 2016)

Program puts good face on having autism (Original article from Sunraysia Daily)

By Sarah Harman

VIEWING autism in a positive light and identifying opportunities for those on the spectrum was a focus of guest speaker Chris
Varney when he kicked off SuniTAFE’s Autism in Context program yesterday with his Quite Magic Method seminar.

Although Mr Varney was diagnosed with autism at five, he didn’t find out he was on the spectrum until he was 14, which, according to him, came as a huge relief.

“I was born into a typical family, my brother was a real Aussie boy, he loved sports, but I always felt like an alien growing up. I was a nine-year-old who liked researching European royalty and history,” he said.

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ARTICLE: Mentoring people with autism to say ‘I can’ (Stonnington Leader, APR 2016)

Mentoring people with autism to say ‘I can’ (Original article posted at Stonnington Leader)

WINDSOR’S Will Rosewarne, an I CAN Network member, is encouraging people living with autism to see it as a strength, not a hindrance.

“At the ICAN Network, we are setting out to prove what people with autism can do,” the 28-year-old said.

The I CAN Network is Australia’s first social enterprise founded by people with autism.

It aims to mentor young people on the autism spectrum to live life with an “I can” attitude, and has sought to share positive stories of people living with Autism throughout April, which is Autism Awareness Month.

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ARTICLE: Yes I Can (Link Disability Magazine, Apr 2016)

Yes I Can (Original article posted at Link Disability Magazine)

Rethinking Autism from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’, the ‘I CAN Network’ is Australia’s first social enterprise founded by people on the Autism spectrum. The organisation mentor young people with Autism and educate businesses and organisations about the condition.

“Our mentors, who are predominately people on the spectrum, spend time with students who have Autism in schools, universities and TAFEs, providing advice, encouragement and acting as a role model,” says chief enabling officer Chris Varney.

“We bring out their confidence, help build communication and teamwork skills and foster an ‘I Can’ attitude that they can use in other areas of their lives. Parents and teachers are also immersed in the program so they can see and hear the difference in the students and learn new approaches to help them.”

Mentees who display an aptitude for leadership are given the option to train as mentors for younger students. I CAN Network also run camps for young people and a Speakers Agency, and advocate on Autism issues.

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ARTICLE: I CAN Network creates a community in the south west that aims to embrace the whole autism spectrum (The Standard, APR 2016)

I CAN Network creates a community in the south west that aims to embrace the whole autism spectrum. (Original article posted at The Standard)

By Rebecca Riddle

SOUTH-WEST Victoria is set to become the first region in Australia to embrace autism as the I CAN program is launched during April.

The pilot program will include the set up of mentoring programs across all five Warrnambool secondary schools as well as the training of local mentors to multiply the future reach of the program.

I CAN is Australia’s first social enterprise founded by people with autism. Chief executive Chris Varley is a 28-year-old law graduate with Asperger’s Syndrome who is proud of the local families who have pushed for the program.

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ARTICLE: Funding Announced for Autism Mentoring Program (DET News Archive, APR 2016)

Funding Announced for Autism Mentoring Program (The Department of Education and Training News Archive)

Young Victorians with autism will benefit from the expansion of the I CAN Network, Australia’s first social enterprise founded by people with autism.

Seed funding from the Department will help deliver I CAN’s mentoring program in three high schools: Brauer College in Warrnambool, Ballarat High School and Coburg High School.

The mentoring organisation runs a unique program that pairs mentors on the spectrum with mentees on the spectrum. Students are empowered with an ‘I can’ attitude – a positive attitude to life and increased self-confidence.

Funding will expand I CAN’s operations to 18 schools and will help youths on the autism spectrum, like Anthony Hay, who has experienced first-hand the benefits of the I CAN Network’s unique approach to assisting those on the spectrum.

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ARTICLE: Empowering People on the Spectrum (Pro Bono Australia, Feb 2016)

Empowering People on the Spectrum (Original article posted at Pro Bono Australia)

By Ellie Cooper

Through mentoring, advocacy and education, a network founded by people on the autism spectrum has set out to create a society that embraces the benefits of autism, writes Ellie Cooper in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.

People on the autism spectrum experience multifaceted stigma, including having their strengths and abilities written off as deficits. But chief enabling officer of the I CAN Network, Chris Varney, said the purpose of his social enterprise is to prove that people with autism can achieve anything.

“Our vision is a world that benefits from embracing autism, which is quite a radical vision if you think about the way autism has been commonly discussed – as a deficit, something to hide, ‘oh no my kid’s on the spectrum,’ ‘I wouldn’t want to be on that spectrum,’ unfortunately that exists in pockets of the community,” Varney said.

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ARTICLE: Students with disability shouldn’t be underestimated (The Age, Jan 2016)

Students with disability shouldn’t be underestimated (Original article posted at The Age)

By Chris Varney

As school goes back for the year, the Senate report into the systemic failings of the education system for students with disability is very timely. In the myriad emails principals will see in their inbox, I hope mention of this report is one of them.

The report calls out the system’s “entrenched culture of low expectations” towards students with disabilities. If parents score a school that has an enabling culture towards disability, you have won the “lottery”. I know this first-hand because my feisty mother managed just that.

Only now, as a law graduate on the autism spectrum with my own company that employs 20 autistic professionals to mentor autistic students, do I realise how much of a difference my principals made to me.

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ARTICLE: I Can Network program aims to inspire Victorian students on the autism spectrum (ABC, Nov 2015)

I Can Network program aims to inspire Victorian students on the autism spectrum (Original article posted at ABC)

By Cheryl Hall

A new pilot program to help inspire students on the autism spectrum and change negative stereotypes will be trialled in Victorian schools.

The I Can Network, which sends mentors into schools, was officially launched in Melbourne this week.

Marymede Catholic School in the city’s northpiloted the program, which is set to expand to 10 schools across the state in 2016.

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ARTICLE: Chris Varney and the I CAN Network (Sensory Oasis For Kids, Oct 2015)

Chris Varney and the I CAN Network (Original article posted at Sensory Oasis For Kids)

This week I had the absolute pleasure of listening to Chris Varney, founder of the I CAN Network explaining his vision for empowering and encouraging young people on the autism spectrum.  Chris was invited to come and speak at our support group meeting that I co-run with three other wonderful parents of kids on the spectrum, and instead of our usual 10-20 people we had a huge turnout of 70!

Chris spoke fondly of his parents, grandparents and special teachers who were amazingly positive role models in his life and who worked so hard to encourage Chris to be all he can be.  In fact, he even brought his dad along to our talk and it was lovely to see how proud he is of his son.

The I CAN Network is a movement of young Australians driving a rethink of Autism from ‘I Can’t’ to ‘I CAN’.  They are building a confident ‘I Can” attitude in the hearts and minds of young Australians on the spectrum and inspiring their peers with the ‘awe’ in Awetism!  The Network came about by accident after Chris did a TEDx talk called “Autism – How my unstoppable mother proved the experts wrong” and was flooded with a huge response from people saying how his mum had inspired them; which in turn inspired Chris to commit himself to the potential of young people on the spectrum.

Now in its third year, the I CAN Network runs mentoring programs in schools and community groups called the Imagination Club, a teacher development program called Quiet Magic as well as camps for teenagers and young adults on the spectrum.  If you would like to see their programs running in your school / group, get in contact with the team at [email protected]

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ARTICLE: The I CAN Network (Postcards from the Field, Oct 2015)

The I CAN Network (Original article posted at Postcards from the Field)

By Nicola Wemyss

Created by people on the Autism Spectrum, the I CAN Network is working at a grassroots level with both the Autistic and the non-Autistic community to “change the way we think about Autism” (Varney 2013). Since its conception, the organization has engaged with schools, businesses, universities, and the wider community to achieve this aim. My evaluation focused on the pilot mentoring program that has been delivered by I CAN at Marymede Catholic College over the last year to provide mentors to young people (Year 7-10) with Autism. Data for the evaluation was collected from participants, mentors and teachers through focus groups and interviews.

It was clear from findings that the program is having a largely positive effect on participants. Whilst the initial reason for joining the program was due to external pressures (i.e. teachers and parents encouragement), students remained in the program for a range of reasons. Mainly it was the social interaction, sense of belonging, and having an opportunity to be themselves that ensured continued participation in the program. However, it was also noted that the intergenerational connection and having a platform to learn more about Autism were also key for students staying involved.

The findings show that there were a variety of positive effects that came with attending the program. Again, social belonging, peer to peer connection and intergenerational connection were highlighted as key benefits. It was also noted across the respondent groups that the program had helped students shift their perceptions on Autism. However, the most widely acknowledged positive outcome of the program was its ability to give students a safe space in which they could feel comfortable to be themselves.

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ARTICLE: The jobless stat that no one is talking about (The Citizen, Sep 2015)

The jobless stat that no one is talking about (Original article posted at The Citizen)

By Danielle Kutchel

“The majority of people, of young adults I’ve met on the spectrum, are not in full time employed work…”

Max Williams isn’t far off the money.

The employment rate for people like Mr Williams— that is, people on the autism spectrum — is consistently low. The most recent official data taken in 2012 found that the labour force participation rate for those on the spectrum — that is, the percentage of those in work or actively looking for work — was 42 per cent. This was lower than the 83 per cent participation rate for people without a disability, and lower even than the 53 per cent participation rate for those with disabilities generally.

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ARTICLE: Why I quit coffee (Midland Express, Sep 2015)

Why I quit coffee (Original article posted at Midland Express)

For many of us, coffee is a daily necessity and just the thing to get us through a long day at the office.

But coffee was just one of many luxuries foregone over the month of August, during the I CAN Network’s AWEgust for AWEtism fundraising campaign.

AWEgust for AWEtism called for people to give up the items they thought they couldn’t live without for a whole month, to raise awareness of the challenges faced by those on the autism spectrum as well as funds to support the I CAN Network in creating a world that benefits from embracing autism.

Riddells Creek local Kristie Murden gave up her daily latte because she knew it would be genuinely difficult for her.

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ARTICLE: Mum’s coffee fast helps autism network (Star Weekly, Sep 2015)

Mum’s coffee fast helps autism network (Original article posted at Star Weekly)

By Matt Crossman

Riddells Creek’s Kristie Murden says giving up her daily latte was a small price to pay to help people with autism – like her son Gus, 7 – get the support they need.

Ms Murden raised more than $1620 for the I CAN Network, which is part of its AWEgust for AWEtism campaign.

Friends and family were quick to support her efforts to kick her daily coffee fix, taking her well beyond her original fundraising target of $700.

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ARTICLE: Education system failing students with autism (The Sydney Morning Herald, Apr 2015)

Education system failing students with autism (Original article posted at the Sydney Morning Herald)

By Chris Varney

Nothing could illustrate the need for April 2’s World Autism Awareness Day more than the revelation that an autistic child has been “managed” in a cage-like structure at a Canberra school. As night set on the United Nations’ day, the story began to trend. Twitter briefly lit up with people’s shock. I wish I was “shocked”. The truth is, I am not.

I do not know the family or school community affected. But I do know the story points us to a national education system that is significantly underperforming when it comes to catering for kids with disabilities, including autism. Australian Bureau of Statistics data tells us 86 per cent of students on the autism spectrum report facing “difficulty” at school.

Schoolyards can be a microcosm of the wider community. This widespread “difficulty” is undoubtedly a factor in the overwhelming 81 per cent of Australians on the spectrum who do not have a post-school qualification. And the 58 per cent of Australians with autism who are unemployed.

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ARTICLE: Rethinking autism – how a mother’s decision to break the mould changed everything (The Burn, Oct 2014)

Rethinking autism – how a mother’s decision to break the mould changed everything (Original article posted at The Burn)

By Sarah Muling

When professionals told Lisa Anderson that Asperger’s syndrome would be a life long limitation for her three-year-old son Chris, she threw any advice they had to offer out the window. Like any mother, Lisa wanted to give her son the best start in life so, following her gut instinct, she decided to take a different approach. Little did she know just how much that courage would impact on the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of people.

Rather than following the prescribed method of isolating Chris, labelling him as abnormal and ‘managing’ his Asperger’s, Lisa decided to actively push her son in every aspect of his life to achieve what she instinctively knew he was capable of.

Twenty-three years down the track, it’s fair to say that Chris has not only defied the expectations of those who wanted to ‘manage his limitations’ but even those of his mother who believed ‘the sky was the limit with Chris’.

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ARTICLE: Students with autism worried about discrimination at university (The Age, Aug 2014)

Students with autism worried about discrimination at university (Original article posted at The Age)

By Benjamin Preiss

Penny Robinson knew large crowded rooms might trigger a panic attack – it was a symptom of her Asperger’s syndrome. So when she enrolled in biomedical science at Monash University she told staff at the first opportunity that she was on the autism spectrum.

Ms Robinson, 31, also told university friends she had Asperger’s so they would not take offence if she barrelled past them midway through a lecture when panic set in.

“I had panic attacks in the assembly hall at school. I was worried about the lecture theatre being a similar environment,” she said.

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ARTICLE: The ‘I CAN’ Attitude (Dumbo Feather, Aug 2013)

The ‘I CAN’ Attitude (Original article posted at Dumbo Feather)

By Chris Varney

All my life I feel like a message has been building within me. That sounds dramatic to say I know. Nevertheless that’s how I feel. My family and friends were very deliberate with the message I received as a kid. The books I read, movies I watched, stories I heard and people I met all made me think ‘I can’.

When I was a kid I naturally wanted to say ‘I can’t’ to a lot of things. I felt different to my peers. Little things like wearing un-matching socks bothered me. I would throw extraordinary tantrums when my routine changed. I had obsessions; painting, family trees, words. People would look at me and ask, “Chris, why do you look so worried?”

To be honest at the time I couldn’t answer them. Only now having grown up can I say that my worry came from the conflict I felt between my own unique way of operating and the typical responses to the world around us I saw in other kids.

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