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Autism Bringing a New Perspective to Business


2 October 2018 at 5:09 pm
Maggie Coggan
The founder of an autistic-led social enterprise mentoring and empowering autistic people believes businesses are missing out by not actively including autistic people in their workplaces.


Maggie Coggan | 2 October 2018 at 5:09 pm


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Autism Bringing a New Perspective to Business
2 October 2018 at 5:09 pm

The founder of an autistic-led social enterprise mentoring and empowering autistic people believes businesses are missing out by not actively including autistic people in their workplaces.

Chris Varney, whose I CAN Network employs 39 autistic people to deliver their program, told Pro Bono News people with autism approached problems and challenges in a unique way and brought different skills to the workplace.

“I think they’ve got great skills, unique strengths, and they think differently and have a refreshing and innovative directness, as well as a technical approach to problem solving,” Varney said.  

“They can benefit lots of workplaces and schools. It’s just about how we create workplaces and schools that embrace them to achieve those benefits.”

He said their business model as a social enterprise was unique in that Varney and his COO were both autistic, as well as having people with autism on their board.

“For decades autistics have been in a patron client paradigm where they’re passive recipients of programs and services,” he said.

“What we’re trying to do is really achieve a game change where we place autistics in our decision making roles.”

He also believed this made the mentoring programs more effective, as they were being delivered and created by people with lived experience of autism.  

“When you ask our customers why they keep coming back, it’s because of the incredible relatability of an autistic adult or young leader mentoring autistic students and employees,” he said.

While there was more awareness around Autism in schools and workplaces, Varney still felt there was not enough being done to make people like himself feel included or welcome in the social or business sectors.   

The I CAN Network team celebrating their fifth birthday.

“I’ve spent my career in not for profits, and I have found people are still a bit wary of autistics, and their default position is to think that they’re a risky group of people to work with,” he said.

“When I started to disclose that I was autistic, people looked at me like I had three heads.

But he believed for the next generation it would be easier, and encouraged the sector to engage in partnerships with autistic-led programs to encourage diversity and acceptance.

“If the sector is going to intentionally involve autistics in their programs, they need to ask autistics how that works,” he said.

I CAN recently celebrated their fifth birthday and currently, they run 47 autistic-led programs in Victoria and Queensland, mentoring 800 autistic kids, teenagers and adults.  

“The journey to build I CAN Network has been a testament to the tenacity of autistic people,” Varney said at the birthday celebration.

“Our growth story is proof of the intense focus, memory capacity, honesty, courage and innovation that autistics can bring to a project.”


Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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