James Ong is the Director (Central) of the I CAN Network, Australia’s first social enterprise founded by people with Autism, and a ParentPaperwork customer. James recently spoke to ParentPaperwork’s Fiona Boyd and explained the origins of I CAN, its mission and its activities.
What was the reason, genesis story, for the I CAN network?
I met Chris Varney (the Founder of I CAN network) in 2012 while I was in a leadership program in university. Chris disclosed that he was on the Autism Spectrum and I also disclosed privately to him that I was also on the spectrum. Chris had an idea about helping people like ourselves that we kept talking about throughout 2013. We finally opened I CAN Network in September 2013.
We established I CAN Network because in Australia it is difficult to be a person on the Autism Spectrum. Compared with the typical population, people on the Autism Spectrum are less likely to go into tertiary education (81% who finished school do not complete a TAFE certificate or university degree) and to be employed (36% people on the Autism Spectrum are employed).
Often we find life difficult due to negative perceptions surrounding the condition in our society. This not only drags people on the Autism Spectrum down but their needs as people are also not catered for (86% students on the Autism Spectrum find school difficult).
I CAN Network was established to not only encourage optimism and skills development in young people on the Autism Spectrum but also to change the perceptions of society to view Autism through a strengths-based lens rather than a deficits-based lens.
What does I CAN do, what is its purpose?
I CAN Network runs mentoring programs in six primary schools, nine secondary schools, two communities and one workplace. Our mentoring programs are aimed to have mentees see their Autism in a more positive light and to develop skills that will allow them to function better in school and society.
We also run a Speakers Agency where people on the Autism Spectrum talk about the strengths and insights of Autism to schools, workplaces, clubs and governments. These presentations are aimed at shifting the perceptions of the public and moving them towards a more positive view of Autism. We also run camps for teens and young adults to give them a positive camp experience as well as to make new friends.
I CAN network has been with ParentPaperwork for a while, how does using the ParentPaperwork platform benefit the work you’re able to do?
We have been using Parent Paperwork to create and send forms for the camps we run. Previously we received paper forms from parents whose children were attending camp.
This was tedious and took ages to compile as I had to physically check that all the fields had been completed and to chase parents to properly fill out the forms.
It was also inconvenient for parents as they had to scan and re-scan paper forms to send to us. We also had to chase up parents who didn’t send the forms back.
With Parent Paperwork, it is way easier for us to create a form online and send it through to parents to complete. As well as that we can track to see who has not completed a form and send out a reminder email in a timely way. It is also so much easier to gather information from Parent Paperwork in an electronic format.
As a new-ish social enterprise, what are the goals you’ve set?
Our vision is “a world that benefits from embracing Autism” and our purpose is “to prove what people with Autism can do”. We aim to change the mindsets of people on the Autism Spectrum and to see their strengths rather than focus too much on their deficits through our school and camp programs. Through our Speakers Agency, we also aim to change the perception of people on the Autism Spectrum in the public mind more generally. And in terms of working in the I CAN Network, we aim to have 50% of people on the Autism Spectrum working on our team .
What do you think are the most noteworthy achievements of I CAN so far?
From the evaluations collected recently, satisfaction towards the mentoring programs has been very strong. 95% of 41 primary school mentees and 81% of 59 secondary school mentees were really happy to be part of an I CAN Network mentoring program.
Interestingly we also found that there was a strong sense of belonging in both the primary and secondary school mentoring programs, where those on the program were able to be themselves and to talk freely about their interests and problems without being intimidated or ostracised.
What are the things that make your job harder? What are the things that make it easier?
I am currently the Evaluations and Social Impact Manager of the I CAN Network, in addition I am also a PhD student who works in a lab. It is a challenge balancing the two roles but there are also benefits to working this way. I get the unique advantage of being able to develop skills and knowledge from both areas that I can transfer between my roles.
Fortunately, I have a lot of friends who look out for me and help with the effort required in the I CAN Network, hence lifting a load off my shoulders when needed which helps keep me focussed on my PhD at the key times I need to be.
‘I Can’t’ used to be such a common default phrase in Australian culture when I was growing up (and I’m 50!). I used to really get annoyed at it and at people telling me what I could or could not do. How important do you think it is for young people with ASD (is that the right terminology?) that the words we choose to use, and phrases etc are empowering and not instantly limiting?
I use “young people on the Autism Spectrum” when describing the people we work with. For young people on the Autism Spectrum, it is very important that we empower them and put aside any prejudices of what people on the Autism Spectrum can and cannot do. Young people on the Autism Spectrum can be weighed down by negative comments from the public to the point where it can affect their belief systems and actions.
However, if they receive encouragement and empowered language from people close to them, they start to believe in themselves and defy the stereotypes that they usually have to deal with. Here at the I CAN Network, we give young people on the Autism Spectrum the belief that they can do whatever it is they’re seeking to do and we can then see the positive results that come from the change in their beliefs about themselves.
What can we look forward to from I CAN over the next 12 months?
We aim to expand our mentoring programs to more schools and communities in metropolitan and rural Victoria. We’re also taking up speaking opportunities in other states and we’re also looking at establishing mentoring programs in the other states. You can find more information on how we are progressing at the I CAN Network at ican.network.