You’ve won several awards and been a finalist for Victorian Australian of the Year for your work with autistic young people, but some of our investors may not have heard of I CAN Network. Can you give us the elevator pitch?

I CAN Network is an autistic-led group mentoring program, harnessing the power of autistic adult mentors to invest in the optimism and confidence of autistic young people.

How did I CAN Network come about?

I created it in 2013 because I had really benefited from mentoring in my life.  I knew that group mentoring could be instrumental in developing people’s confidence and sense of belonging, but I felt that this wasn’t happening in the autism sector in Australia. So, I set I CAN up. I was helped by autistic mates James (Ong) and Penny (Robinson) – and here we are.

How did mentoring help you when you were younger?

I had a grandfather who was physically disabled and who needed a lot of support. Despite this, he had a wonderful sense of humour, he was very confident and optimistic, and he never complained. I was an extremely anxious kid, so when my family got a bit exhausted with me – as families can do – my grandparents were a fantastic support. I ended up spending an enormous amount of time with my grandfather, and his good humour and confidence really rubbed off on me.

Alongside that, I had a Year 7 high school co-ordinator, who just rescued me in school. At that time, I had very low confidence and I worked hard to be invisible. In upper primary, I had pretty poor attendance. When I transitioned to high school, this Year 7 coordinator just made me feel safe. She never judged my anxieties. She gave me a loving push to get out there and do things at school. And she made sure I never felt embarrassed or humiliated because I was different. She ended up creating a positive whisper behind me that stayed with me.

These two people weren’t technically my mentors, but I saw them as mentors. They were very significant people in my life. When I got older, and I looked at all the depressing data on autism, I thought, “Oh my gosh, it does not have to be like this!” I am obviously verbal and I knew that other autistic people had greater challenges than I did. But I still felt that, no matter what your challenges are, mentoring is always going to be helpful. That is what pushed me to start I CAN.

So it was a pay-it-forward type of situation?

Yes. My teacher – the Year 7 coordinator – died at the end of my Year 12. She’d had such a magnetic effect on the school community and I think everyone at her funeral was overwhelmed by what you can achieve when you work with young people. So having had that imprint in front of me, I thought, “Gosh, I’ve got to do something with this.”

As you know, Future Generation Global invests in not-for-profits that are working to promote wellbeing and prevent mental ill-heath in young Australians. That ranges from universal prevention, which targets all young people, to selective prevention, which targets those at higher risk of developing mental ill-health. Why is it so important for us to target autistic or neurodivergent youth?

We know that 77.7% of autistic people experience difficulties in schools. We know that in schools, they’re four times more likely to be bullied, which impacts their educational outcomes and of course flows on to their post-school pathways and employment. We know there’s a very low participation rate in employment, relative to other disability communities and to the non-autistic community. It’s something like 31.6%.  And that, of course, plays out into mental ill health. We know that the suicide rate for autistic people is up to 7 times the national average. And then, on the whole, there’s a 20–36-year gap in life expectancy between autistic and non-autistic Australians.

I CAN is the largest autistic-led organisation in Australia. How important is it to have that lived experience when it comes to mentoring young autistic people?

That’s a great question. I want to preface this by saying that, obviously, there’s a role for all people who want to make sure that autistic young people feel welcome, have a sense of belonging, and feel optimistic. You don’t have to be autistic to help an autistic person. That said, in the ecosystem of support behind autistic young people, there hasn’t been any emphasis historically on autistic adults being role models for autistic young people or sharing that lived experience.

At I CAN, we measure all our programs for the before and after effect, and what we’ve seen from our data is an increase in the sense of belonging that autistic young people have. Last year, we had a huge independent evaluation of our program by the Australian Catholic University and that found we’d achieved statistically significant increases in belonging, connection with autistic identity and community, self-efficacy and optimism. We’re very proud of those results. And I guess that showed us that an autistic mentor can achieve a level of relatability that is quite unique and that does a lot to increase a sense of belonging for autistic teenagers.

So is there an element of “you’ve got to see it to be it” in your model?

Absolutely. Your peers are such an influence on you, so it’s totally that model.

There seems to be a real shift afoot in the human services industry to ensure that those leading organisations actually reflect the people they are trying to help. So, we’ve got this shift towards Indigenous-led organisations, youth-led organisations or autistic-led organisations, in I CAN’s case. Why do you think it’s taken us so long to get to this point?

I’ll be honest with you. The platform on autism has been overwhelmingly dominated by the research community. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, but the history of autism is very checkered. If your shareholders are interested, they should read Neurotribes by Steve Silberman and watch his accompanying TED talk on the history of autism.

It’s very sad to see the way that the diagnosis was treated in certain circles of the research communities. They basically took the “medical speak” and transplanted that into schools and communities, without ever socialising it. So terms like “low functioning” were given straight to schools and parents and carers. If you were a marketer, you’d look at some of these terms and go, “How? What? Why?” I mean, where was the PR marketing moment that asked how we could communicate a medical term in a way that actually enables the community? There was never that moment.

As someone who had always worked in marketing and in community development, I was overwhelmingly frustrated by how behind the autistic sector was. I’d been exposed to great Indigenous-led organisations, like Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience, and child-led organisations through my work with World Vision. Yet at autism conferences in Australia, there were barely any autistic speakers. Again, I’m not trying to criticise the research community – they only knew what they knew. But 10 years ago, there was a paucity of autistic voices in decision making that affected them. That’s changed now and organisations like I CAN have played a pioneering role in that. Let’s just leave it there as I can feel I’m on my soapbox now!

Is it strange to you that it took us so long to get to this point?

You know what was funny – and this is a big confession. People kept calling me innovative. And I was like, “This isn’t innovative. It’s just basic, basic stuff.” Autistic adults helping autistic teenagers? This isn’t cutting edge stuff.

But you’ve still pioneered the space. Are there others following in your footsteps?

Yes, which is great. And the best thing is that no one is duplicating; they’re all servicing different parts of the market. I CAN is a small enterprise, so we have to choose what we can and can’t do. It’s been a big relief to us that when we’ve said we actually don’t have the resources to do this, other groups have stepped up.

I know you have pretty ambitious expansion plans. Can you tell me about those?

Currently, we work in 140 Victorian and Queensland schools and we offer 1900 places in our I CAN online program, which is an after school program. But we’ve just received a $5.7 million contract with the Department of Education in Victoria, which will allow us to expand to 254 government schools in Victoria, and offer 12,200 places in our online program for Victorian autistic government students. That’s the biggest announcement ever behind an autistic-led organisation – so it’s massive.

How important is Future Generation Global’s investment in I CAN to those plans?

It’s very significant, because what FGG has made clear to us is that its funding is to support the backend projects that enable the expansion. It is funding things like our customer relationship management system, which is expensive, and which is the absolute enabler of our growth. We use Salesforce and we now have every service agreement with every school on it, so we can track the experience of every customer more accurately. FGG’s investment is going to support us to continually be more transparent with our impact and it will also help us with our longitudinal data. Once you embed your impact measurement into your CRM, you have a greater ability to test what you are achieving longitudinally. We’ll be able to see the impact on a person doing the I CAN program for, say three years, so it’s going to be really powerful.

Presumably that data will help you to attract other funders?

Absolutely. But it will also fill the gaps in that evidence base around autistic young people. We know that early intervention is really important, but we have hardly any data on anything else.

As you know, at Future Generation Global we’ve constructed a portfolio of social impact partners which we’re hoping will collectively demonstrate the benefits of investing in mental ill health prevention. How important is it to you – and  I CAN – to have this portfolio of organisations that can collaborate and share knowledge and experience?

Our vision is a world that embraces autism and our purpose is to prove what autistics can do. We’re not going to achieve that alone. Partnerships and collaborations are vital.

I think that one of the very simple things that organisations like I CAN can do in communities of practice that FGG creates and facilitates is support people around language, autistic identity, the mental ill health data, and the interventions that are making a difference. Every organisation working in the community knows that the diagnostic rate in autism has increased. Now, one in 44 Australians are autistic. Ten years ago, we’d have said one in 100 Australians were autistic. This is playing out in multiple parts of Australia. Right now, a big context in the NDIS review is the overwhelming number of NDIS participants who are autistic. That was never part of the design, so we’re grappling with how we support this group of Australians. I’m excited by that.

It’s been ten years since you founded I CAN. Looking back, what are you most proud of?

I’m most proud that we’ve stayed true to our goal of having 50% of the organisation autistic. There are 82 autistic staff out of 118, so we exceed that 50% target. I’m also really proud that the team can now employ staff with greater support requirements. We have staff with intellectual delays and processing differences – and we’ve discovered a good way to support them. We’re not a perfect workplace for everyone. But I’m really proud that we were gutsy and said, “Let’s work out how we can be inclusive of lots of areas of the autistic spectrum.” And we have!

For more information, visit I CAN Network’s website

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