by Chris Varney
We have a big vision at the I CAN Network: a world that embraces Autism.
We focus heavily on the worlds of schools to pursue that vision. In our six years of operation, I’ve worked with many schoolteachers. Bree Huggins, one of our I CAN Regional Managers and a seasoned teacher, embodies the very best of a noble profession.
Bree holds a genuine belief in Autistic and other neurodivergent students and the I CAN Mentors who support them. This belief informs all of Bree’s interactions with I CAN staff, students, parents and schools. It has allowed her to unearth new mentor talent among Autistic student mentees and help progress Autistic staff on their respective leadership journeys at I CAN.
It is clear from watching Bree how gracefully she works alongside Autistic students. Bree does not come in blazing with pedagogy, research or learning theory. Instead, she brings great humility which helps to build the students’ trust in her. A true facilitator, Bree establish relationships and gets the best out of students and staff in the room.
As we celebrate World Teachers’ Day, we are excited to share with our supporters some of Bree’s powerful insights:
What drew an experienced teacher like you to join what was then a start-up of a small Autistic-led non-profit with very big aspirations?
I was at a point in my life where I was looking for an anchor. I had recently left a long-time teaching career to engage in further study. I had just lost my beloved brother.
I was asked to be a teacher at an I CAN community mentoring session, and the moment I walked in the door, I just knew I had found my people!
I still can’t believe that I have a role that lets me combine so many things that I’m passionate about – my love of teaching, my deep interest in social-emotional learning and communication, my personal connection to Autism and my need to be around people who let me be myself.
We proudly share that we are the largest Autistic-led organisation in Australia and one that is predominantly Autistic staffed. What have you learnt from being part of the I CAN team?
I’m not on the Autism Spectrum myself, but I’ve never really felt like I fitted the mould of what society deems is “normal”. What is normal, anyway? At I CAN, I feel that I can be my authentic self. I am embraced for who I am because we have created a space where there is mutual respect, understanding and acceptance. Plus, I get to work with such a range of interesting, caring, quirky people.
I tend to be more of a black-and-white thinker, and I like to know where I stand with people. With my teammates, there is no guesswork or hidden agenda, which is refreshing. We care for each other and our individual needs.
I always knew that the stereotype of Autistic people not being emotionally sensitive was a myth, but until I started working closely with my team, I wasn’t fully aware of just how deeply those feelings run. One of the people in my life who is best able to read my emotions and help me regulate is Kyal (22), one of our mentors. He helps me keep things on track as much as I help him!
As a team, we also learn so much from each other. I have the experience of being a teacher and a parent, and the mentors and mentees in our programs help me understand Autism even better through their lived experience. We teachers are naturally inquisitive, so the fact that every day at I CAN offers me a chance to grow and expand my knowledge is a gift.
What advice would you give to your fellow teachers who are so keen to support their Autistic students more effectively?
Being an effective teacher is all about building relationships and creating trust with each student. These things are particularly critical for students who might feel overwhelmed and misunderstood at school.
There are many ways to signal to a child that you want to build that connection – for starters, sharing some details from your own life (within professional boundaries) so that the kids begin to relate to you. My students should know that, yes, I go to the grocery store, just like a regular person. I have a family. I have interests that get me excited and I have feelings just like them.
Especially with Autistic students, incorporating their interests into classroom activities and also showing a genuine enthusiasm for them is a wonderful way to build that trust and encourage engagement. Within I CAN we embrace the mentees’ strengths. These strengths differ from person to person. Embracing and teaching to individual strengths and interests promotes self-confidence and a sense of being accepted. At I CAN we see this evolve quickly because the mentees feel comfortable in sharing.
It’s also very important to give students recharge time and space if they need it. There’s a lot of emphasis on playground or social time, but what many of our students need is a quiet place where they can play on an iPad or engage in some other calming activities preorganised with the school. A brain break to one person is not the same for another. We have “Chill Out” space at all of our I CAN camps and events, and this is something that I’d love to see more schools incorporate.
Likewise, helping kids understand their body signals can really assist with self- regulation and give students a sense of control – so can simple systems like a colour card that indicates “I need a break”. Giving the students a choice to be included in meetings when creating an individual learning plan is important and empowering for the student.
When I was just starting out in teaching, I wish I had understood that there is always a reason behind a behaviour. The trick is to find what the reason is and this can take lots of observation. Looking at what is happening before the behaviour occurs and straight after can give good insight. When I was studying teaching, the courses didn’t cover a lot about Autism – for instance, there was no explanation of stimming and the role it can play in helping a person self-regulate.
Autistic kids manage so many demands on any given day. Sometimes, just getting a child to a stage where they feel able to come to school is a massive step for that child and their family. Anything we teachers can do to convey “I understand you” and give students some sense of control goes a long way toward building those feelings of safety and acceptance.
Our teacher supporters play a key part in the impact we deliver at I CAN. What message would you like them to receive on World Teachers’ Day?
I see you. I know that you don’t work from 9 am–3 pm. I know you are facing multiple demands from multiple sources. I appreciate that you have students with a wide array of needs, talents, personalities and backgrounds. I realise that you are expected to do so much more than just teach.
We don’t become teachers for the money or the myth of easy hours. We do it because we want to make a difference in the lives of our students. Each of us
has the potential to be that teacher who can change the way a young person sees themselves.
I am so grateful for the teachers who want to help us build a world that embraces Autism.
What does a world that embraces Autism look like to you?
I think back to one of the first community sessions with I CAN. As a mum myself, I will never forget the image of seeing another mum crying at the door – not out of sadness but out of sheer joy and relief that there was a place where her child would finally feel understood and included, accepted and celebrated for who they are. A world that embraces Autism would offer that to every person on the Autism Spectrum, and we would all be better off as a result.
You can learn more about Bree from a recent podcast, “Women Of Influence”.