I CAN, Chris Varney.

“I have capability, I can do things, I am worth believing in.” This is the idea at the centre of the I CAN Network founded by law graduate, loving husband, father and Drysdale local Chris Varney. Chris is proudly autistic and grew up surrounded by a supporting and loving family. He was a verbal, highly anxious kid who often took days off from school.

A particularly important person in Chris’s life was his year 7 transitional coordinator, Christine. ‘She was a gentle educator,’ Chris says, ‘and she gave me a sense of trust, safety and belief in myself.’ With those three things, Chris concludes, autistic students can do anything. Although not an autism expert, Christine noticed Chris’s extreme anxiety and created a welcoming environment by engaging his special interests in European history.

‘I was lucky to have positive minded parents,’ says Chris, who also spent a lot of time with his maternal grandparents. ‘Grandma Margaret was a tiny woman with a lot of grit,’ and Chris would often come around to help take care of his wheelchair-bound grandfather. ‘That was my sanctuary,’ Chris recalls. After his grandfather passed away and he left year 12, Chris felt he had to use the power of his network with their influence. Already, the dream was building slowly.

On entering the workforce, Chris met many autistic people who had been raised in an environment with a ‘deficit approach,’ the idea that autistic people were meant to be pitied. Systemic barriers meant that these individuals weren’t receiving the same opportunities that their non-autistic peers were. Most people hearing about Chris’s dream for an autistic mentoring program looked at him like he was speaking a different language and thought it was too risky to employ autistic adults to mentor autistic kids. However, with sheer determination, hard work and support from his phenomenal team and network, Chris made that dream a reality.

Of the 99 staff working at the I CAN Network, 74 are autistic. Chris is proud to have a team with a diverse range of support requirements, and all sorts of processing needs. Prospective mentors do not have to be autistic, and they can apply to be either a facilitator or a mentor. Students can sign up for the mentoring program via their school, or an online afternoon or evening program via NDIS funding. When schools purchase the program, they choose the number of weekly sessions they want for up to 16 students.

The sessions focus on teamwork, confidence building and engagement. The primary school program (I CAN Imagination Club) is not autism specific and gives students a platform to show their creative leadership, while the high school program is more explicitly about autism specific mentoring. At the end of the program, students are introduced to the AWETISM expo, which promotes the expression of young autistic talent. The 2020 and 2021 lockdowns caused a major disruption to the program and I CAN had to adapt. This grew I CAN’s national online program by 300% and kept 22 autistic employers in a job during the harshest lockdown in Victoria.

The I CAN Network has made a world of difference for many autistic youths. One such young person was Jake, who reluctantly joined in 2017 as a year 7 student. He experienced anxiety around public speaking and was worried about communication activities in the program. The I CAN Network helped build Jake’s authenticity and confidence, although he panicked at the idea of stepping out of his comfort zone, he persevered making little steps each AWETISM Expo. At the end of year 10 he MCed at AWETISM, won a campus award for student leadership and is now a paid I CAN Mentor with ongoing employment.

The next AWETISM Expo is 9 September 2022. Readers can find out more about the I CAN Network and how to get involved on the website: https://icannetwork.online/

Story: Stephany Downing. Photo: supplied