I CAN breaks down barriers for autistic students

​Autistic school students shared their experiences at an International Day of People with Disabilities panel discussion with State government staff and educational professionals​.

Panel speakers left to right: Tess Abbotsmith-Youl, Stuart Bott, Amelia, Lachie Tom, Chris Varney, Jai

The students spoke as part of the I CAN Network, an autism social enterprise run by a mostly autistic staff team. Pride is the centre of I CAN's mission, and they celebrate the unique strengths of being autistic in their work with schools.

I CAN provides mentoring programs for autistic young people, motivational speakers and training for teachers. In schools, the mentoring programs include groups of students in games, learning life skills, and talking about their interests in an inclusive environment.

'It's great to just be yourself.'

School students Amelia and Tom are part of their I CAN mentoring program 'The Mutants' in Aquinas College in Ringwood, because they believe autism is a superpower. Amelia used to dislike going to school, but being part of The Mutants has changed her mind. 'I don't think I'm so strange anymore,' Amelia says. Today, she makes and sells her own vintage jewellery to the community.

Tom says he enjoys the activities and learning about social skills in the group. He's become much more confident because of the I CAN program - he even gave a speech to his whole school about autism.

'I want people to know what autism is, and for people to learn what autistic people can do at school and in the community,' Tom says.

Echuca Specialist School student Jai loves video games and says he likes sharing his interests with other people. His I CAN program includes students from two neighbouring schools. 'We get to connect to other strangers in different schools,' Jai says. 'It's interesting.' 

'I learned a valuable lesson – it's great to just be yourself.'
The panel discussion

I CAN programs are led by autistic mentors who are employed with I CAN. Lachie from Warrnambool went to I CAN camps and a Warrnambool mentoring program. 'I can hang out with my friends in a calm place,' Lachie says of his group experiences.

'I feel like I'm worth more, and worth listening to. It's brilliant.'

'Three years ago, I would never do this [speaking publicly] – I would have freaked out and said "no, no, no",' Lachie says. 'But now I'm here - and I'm rockin' it!''

Today, Lachie is employed as an I CAN Network junior mentor.

'People used to run away from me,' Lachie says. 'Now they ask me questions.'

Principal Stuart Bott worked to bring I CAN into Kyabram P-12 College. Not only have the autistic students vastly improved their mental health, but the school culture is changing. 'There's a change in the way teachers treat autistic kids,' Stuart says. 'And the students use to tease one of the autistic students – now they support him.'

Tessa Abbottsmith-Youl, Co-Acting Principal, brought the I CAN program to Sydney Road Community School. Fifteen autistic students joined the program. 'We're a pretty inclusive space, and I CAN celebrates autism as something special,' Tessa says.

Finding pride at school

Chief Enabling Officer, Chris Varney spoke about his own experiences as a child with autism. 'When I found out I had autism, I remember not wanting to disclose it,' he says. 'I felt shame.'

But positive experiences at school led Chris to look at autism in a different way, and realise how much social support can impact a young person's confidence. His teachers at Fairhills Primary School let him lead a class on one of his passions – European royal families – and write about it in the school newsletter. 'There were wonderful moments my teacher gave me,' Chris says.

Chris became more confident and comfortable with talking about having autism, which led to him eventually co-founding I CAN Network.

'I am proud to be an autistic person,' Chris says. 'We need to change. We need to bring our community together.'

The panel also celebrated the release of the Disability Action Plan. You can download and read it on our Strategy page.

See advice and services for parents of children with autism.

We are also supporting I CAN to rollout the I CAN Schools Program across Victoria. Find out more about the I CAN Network.