The I CAN Network is a social enterprise founded by by people on the autism spectrum which runs mentoring programs for autistic and neurodiverse students in schools in Victoria and Queensland, as well as online.

Chief Enabling Officer of I CAN, Chris Varney, says reaching the fifth birthday was a significant milestone for a social enterprise with a staff and business model that is very different to the norm.

He says when he presented his idea for an autistic-led mentoring program to others, there were some who voiced their doubts that he would succeed, or who considered the plan to be too risky.

Fast forward five years and I CAN has now mentored 800 autistic children, teenagers and adults around Australia through schools, camps and online programs.

He says it all started with a driven team, committed to changing the way autistic students were catered to in schools.

“On this day five years ago, I CAN Network was just a TEDx talk that Mum and I had put together,” Varney said at the event.

“Then at lunchtime I walked into the Education Faculty at Monash University and met James Ong and Penny Robinson: two fellow autistics who were exactly the can-do people I needed to help me build a team.”

At this year's birthday breakfast, which was attended by school teachers, supporters and government ministers, mentees from I CAN’s programs explained the impact that mentoring has had on them.

The key themes were greater confidence and self-acceptance, and feeling like they were no longer alone.

Other speakers expressed their support for I CAN, including the Hon. Ben Carroll, Minister for Industry and Employment in Victoria, who said it was an “honour” to speak at the event, and Roma Britnell, state member for South West Coast, who said she shed tears of pride hearing from students who told of their experiences in the I CAN program.

The organisation announced a number of future initiatives at the event, including the establishment of the Horvath-Wake Medal to recognise inclusive teachers.

The medal is named in honour of two teachers who have had a lasting impact on I CAN through their support for autistic students: Christine Horvath, Varney’s childhood teacher, and Julia Wake, campus coordinator at Marymede Catholic College, who helped champion I CAN’s first mentoring program at her school.

“Through this award, we hope to recognise the countless other unsung heroes of our school corridors: the teachers who go out of their way to make students feel included, empowered and able,” explains Varney.

“We will be encouraging students to nominate their teachers, and will release more details about how this will work soon!”

After the formalities of the event, guests watched on as Varney and Gus Murden, one of I CAN’s youngest supporters, cut the birthday cake.

The act represented the continuing of a circle that began three years ago; Murden was just five when he cut the ribbon at I CAN’s official launch in 2015.

“We are so grateful to all of our supporters for their unwavering faith and commitment to our mission of creating a rethink of autism,” Varney says.