The I CAN Network story started with one family, the Varneys. Lisa Anderson and John Varney instilled an ‘I CAN’ attitude in their Autistic son Chris through a network of supportive friends and teachers. Years later, in 2013, Chris would found ‘I CAN Network’ with the help of two Autistic mates Penny Robinson and James Ong.
Our branding captures the wonder of the aurora borealis (or northern lights): a natural spectrum. Our commitment to an Autistic-led approach is so deep that Goal One of our strategy is to grow I CAN Network with a 50% difference: a minimum of half of our staff must be Autistic.
Now in its seventh year, I CAN Network’s knowledge of Autistic young people, schools and mentoring practice has enabled it to achieve widespread influence across the landscape of children’s rights and inclusive education and employment. I CAN is an ongoing member of the Victorian Government’s Autism Education Advisory Group and Autism Plan Advisory Group, the Queensland Government’s Autism Education Advisory Group, the Australian Association for Special Education, the Child Rights NGO Taskforce and the Australian Autism Alliance.
In the past year alone, I CAN Network has mentored 1,052 Autistic kids, teenagers and adults nationwide through schools, TAFEs, workplaces, camps and online programs. Since inception in 2013, I CAN Network has employed 34 Autistic people to deliver mentoring programs.
Chris is the founder and Chief Enabling Officer, CEO of the I CAN Network. He spent 11 years with World Vision Australia and World Vision International where his roles included Youth Ambassador, VGen Co-Director and Manager of Youth Supporters.
Many of the young people who are new to our mentoring programs join us with a sense of shame around being Autistic. Too often, they have internalised the negative perceptions of others and the deficits-based of Autism.
At I CAN, we believe in a rethink of Autism that moves young people from a mindset of ‘I CAN’T’ to ‘I CAN.’ We do this through respectful, peer-based programs that celebrate Autistic strengths, passions and shared experiences.
Since our launch in September 2013, we have helped thousands of Autistic young people develop a stronger sense of self-acceptance, confidence, optimism and belonging. In the process, we are demonstrating the high level of innovation and positive social change that comes from valuing Autistic insights and talent. It’s not just our Autistic mentees and mentors who benefit from our strengths-based approach to Autism and neurodiversity. Every day, we see more and more people embracing our hopeful, respectful rethink of Autism.