The I Can Network – Rethinking Autism

In September of 2013, three Monash University students on the autism spectrum hit on an idea; a support network run by autistic people, for autistic people.

Where most organizations that focus on autism treat it as a disorder, these three wanted theirs to concentrate on the strengths and talents of people on the spectrum, while also empowering them to overcome their challenges. In keeping with this positive and constructive approach, they decided to call it the I Can Network.

From there, the group rapidly snowballed. A mere seven months after its inception, having grown to a dozen members, the I Can Network held its first camp for young adults with autism. Since then, they’ve run a further four camps, established mentoring programs in six schools, and expanded to around sixty volunteers.

Chris Varney, the I Can Network’s Chief Enabling Officer and one of the original three founders, attributes much of its success to the fact that almost all the Network’s staff are on the spectrum. “As far as we know, we’re the first of our kind in Australia,” says Chris. “We’re not a group of doctors or parents advocating on behalf of people with autism; we’re autistic ourselves.”

This approach seems to be paying off; feedback from the Network’s camps and workshops has been overwhelming positive. “Before I came to this network I felt like a social nobody. Now I feel like a somebody,” said one of the participants of the Network’s first teens camp last October, who asked to remain anonymous.

“My friends have been using ‘Autism’ as an insult in their home. After camp I felt I had the confidence to tell them about my Asperger’s and my experience of Autism,” claimed another.

The I Can Network has also reached a point where many participants in its early camps and mentoring programs have joined the organization’s staff. “I want to help others the way others have helped me,” says 18 year old Elise, one of this new generation of mentors. “It’s a pay it forward thing.”

Anthony, another new mentor, has a similar outlook. “I wanted to become a mentor because I like to help people and I feel that I know what the younger generation with autism is going through,” he says.

The I Can Network is having its official launch as a company this November. As to its long term future, its management want to expand it to a national and ultimately a global franchise. In just two years it’s increased in size twenty-fold, and grown from little more than a Uni student’s pipe dream to a thriving volunteer organization. At this rate, it may just reach its lofty goals.

By Max Williams (Editor-in-Chief, I CAN Network) 

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